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Sungnyemun: A Journey of Glory, Loss and Recovery
   

It was a rainy day.  It was the day I was permitted to report on Sungnyemun.  All the people were pleased with the rain coming in the dry season, except me.  It seemed like the bad weather was in  my mind, too. 

A year has passed since Sungnyemun, the first national treasure of Korea, was badly damaged in the fire. Since the colonial era by Japan, entrance to Sungnyemun had been restricted; however, Lee Myung Bak, the former mayor of Seoul, decided to open it to the public on the first year of his presidency.  Since 2005, all citizens had permission to enter the monument. Three years later, it was destroyed by a fire started by a citizen on February 10, 2008.  The 69-year-old man, identified as Chae Jong-gi, sprayed paint-thinner on the floor of the structure and then set fire to it.  He said he did this because he was just upset about not having been paid in full for land he had sold to developers.  It was a great shock to a large number of people and they blamed the government for not enacting stronger security measures.  The Cultural Heritage Administration said that it would take three years to restore the historic gate.  All efforts are under the way to reconstruct the destroyed gate to its near-original shape.

The site is now surrounded by a gigantic metal wall.  It has past about one year since Sungnyemun's restoration began.  What has happened thenceforth?

Sungnyemun, more commonly known as Namdaemun, is the southern gate of the original walls of the Joseon Dynasty, which surrounded Seoul so as to protect the city from tigers and other outside forces.  From the start of its construction in 1395 through 1398, it has outlasted several kings of the Joseon Dynasty and the occupation of the Japanese in the earlier part of the 1900s.  It was extensively damaged in the Korean war, necessitating a major repair in 1962, when it became Korea’s first National Treasure.  The old gate had managed to survive the Imjin War, the colonial period, the Korean War and Korea’s post-war economic development; however, it did not survive the attack of an old man.

I visited it first when I was a middle school student. At that time, it was not permissible to enter the gate, so I was only able to see it from a distance.  I felt it represented a dynamic contrast between the old and new Korea.  So it made Seoul such a special place.

In the evening of Sunday, February 10, 2008, every one in Korea got a shock.  The Nandaemun fire broke out and severely damaged the wooden structure at the top of the gate.  Some newspapers and TV stations reported that it was totally demolished and it needed to be entirely "rebuilt" or "reconstructed".  I was astonished at the news.  I felt sorry that a Korea national icon was destroyed.  But, when I visited and saw it with my own eyes, I was more shocked to see the devastated 600-year-old structure; however, I realized that the newspapers overstated the tragedy.  "They, the newspapers, were not telling the whole truth." Jo Sangsun, research associate of cultural heritage administration of Korea, said "The historic gate consists of three parts; the two-tiered wooden structure and the pure-white granite foundation, which supported wooden structures.  In the wooden section, 10 percent of the first tier and 90 percent of the second tier was damaged by fire.  Fortunately, there is almost no damage to the stone section.  So it was wrong to say that Nadaemun was completely demolished. We need "restoration" not reconstruction or "rebuilding"."

Administration has laid out a three-step restoration plan with completion scheduled for the end of 2012. The first phase of the restoration has been done and the second phase is under way with experts checking the original design through the historical research and excavation.  Through restoration, new facts are being discovered.  During Japanese colonial time, Japan removed the ramparts to pave new streets and construct tram ways.  In the process, the ground below Sungnyemun and the surrounding area were raised some meters and only the gate remained. So, with the restoration project, the ground level could be lowered to the original state,

"The most important part of restoration is securing all the timber needed to build the upper story of the gate.  Special strong pine trees are needed.  The pine trees called Geumgangsong from North Gyeongsang Province are resistant to decay, so we will use them." Jo said,  "actually, it is difficult for us to find the timber in any other historical restorations, but fortunately, we’ve obtained most of the huge pine logs we need through a private donation campaign.  However, the basic rule of the restoration project is to reuse old parts as much as possible so as to carry on the 600-year tradition.  So we will reuse some other parts that survived the fire."  It is expected to see the grand Sungnyemun in its original shape in three or four years.

When I saw the destruction of Sungnyemun, I felt so sorry and my heart hurt at first, now, I am relieved that the steps for restoration seems to be going smoothly.  I hope this sort of incident will never happen again.  We should improve fire-protection methods for all of Korea’s old cultural treasures.  Motivated by this lesson, the cultural administration designated a special day to protect national heritage items.  Protection programs like this  should continue.  Sungnyemun will not be restored if people are just angry about the government's failure to suppress the fire.  It is only through public awareness that Korea's cultural treasure no.1 will get the restoration it deserves.  We should try our best to establish an environment that is conducive for preventing disasters while at the same time enhancing public awareness our precious national heritage.

Kim Na-eun

Kim Na-eun  better68@dongguk.edu

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