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13 Feb 2008

Visiting Namdaemun after the fire – As many readers probably already know, the wooden roof of Namdaemun collapsed early Monday morning after being set afire by an arsonist on Sunday evening. I saw video of Namdaemun smoking on the news Sunday night, but firefighters had trained their hoses on the gate and everything appeared to be under control. It wasn’t until the next morning that I learned the fire had not been contained and the superstructure had collapsed.

“This was indeed a tragedy, but hopefully it will serve as a wake-up call.”

For those who have not heard about the incident, Namdaemun is the southern gate in the wall that once surrounded the city of Seoul (“Namdaemun” means “Great South Gate” and is a popular appellation—the official name of the gate is Sungnyemun). It was built in 1398 and was the oldest wooden structure remaining in Seoul, and for nearly the past fifty years it has been designated National Treasure No. 1.

I was in Seoul yesterday, and since I had some time before I needed to be anywhere I decided to walk down to Namdaemun to see it for myself. I ate a quick breakfast with Hyunjin near the Sejong Cultural Center, and then Hyunjin went to work and I headed south toward the gate. I spent about forty minutes there and took forty-five photos in total, and I’ve chosen nine of them to share with you.

(Today’s entry is something new for Liminality. Photos that appear in Journal entries usually don’t link to bigger versions—I save that for my Imagery galleries. But I felt that these photos needed to have bigger versions, and I didn’t want to limit myself to the brief commentary format of an Imagery gallery. So I decided to do something different—I’ve linked the smaller photos embedded in this entry to larger versions (click on the photos to see them), and I’ve put up an Imagery gallery that contains just the photos and brief captions as a companion piece to this entry for those who might want to view the photographs in more of a slideshow format.)

I don’t know how many times I have walked south from the Gwanghawmun/City Hall area along Sejong Street toward Namdaemun. I can tell you that I’ve done it far less frequently in recent years, especially after we moved out of Seoul, but when I first came to Korea I spent a lot of time in the city center. It was always nice to see Namdaemun standing there amidst the swirl of traffic. It used to be the centerpiece of a traffic circle, but recently one section of that traffic circle was eliminated and a large, grassy area was created in front of the gate. It made it a lot easier to appreciate the national treasure, and I can remember spending some time late last year doing just that.

Yesterday morning, though, was different. It was bitterly cold and windy, as it often is in Seoul during the winter, and even though there were no leaves on the trees that lined the street, they still obstructed the view of the gate. When I got closer, though, I felt sick to my stomach. I was surprised that this was my reaction—it is a tragedy, for certain, but I didn’t expect to feel physically ill. It passed, though, and I snapped my first photo from the western side of Sejong Street, north of the gate. The light was wrong, so the gate can’t be seen too clearly, but there is no doubt about what happened.

I walked east across the street and stopped when I reached the sidewalk to turn and take another look at the gate. I could see more clearly now, and through the entrance gap in the makeshift barrier that had been erected I could see a pile of rubble. Within the superstructure itself, workers wearing bright orange safety vests and hardhats were clearing away the rubble. The roof was completely gone; only the framework that had held it up remained, and that, too, was severely damaged.

I began to circle around the gate toward the south, and I watched the people around me. There was not a single person who walked by who did not look up at the gate, like how plants will turn to face the sun no matter where you place them. A lot of people stopped, and most of these people did what I did—took photos. Some people had cameras, but many just had their cell phones.

When I reached the south side of the gate, I found that the grassy area in front of the gate was filled with people. Against the barrier, two young girls (they look like they might be sisters) were being interviewed by a KBS crew. I wondered what they were saying, but I didn’t bother to get any closer. What could they say? No doubt they were coached to say words like “tragedy” and “sorrow,” and maybe even “hope,” but could they really understand what that meant? Judging by the looks on their faces, they were just excited to be on TV. Not that I blame them. If anything, I felt a little aggravated with the ubiquitous news crews, all looking for the right angle on the story to generate just the right amount of sorrow, sympathy, outrage, etc. But, then again, I guess I can’t really blame them either.

I turned my attention away from the children and toward the gate itself. The temporary barrier wasn’t quite complete yet, but it still covered most of the gate. The charred remains of the superstructure still rose above the barrier, though, black against the blue sky. It was hard to believe that this had really happened.

I was brought back to earth when I heard two men arguing. One of them was shouting, “So you’re saying that this is the fault of the Japanese, is that it?” I thought that was a rather odd thing to say, and I soon realized that the accusation was groundless. The man being accused was dressed in traditional garb and holding a banner that read, “National History, rise again!” He explained that he simply wanted the nation to restore Namdaemun to its former glory. I’m not quite sure how the Japanese got dragged into it (although it’s not that surprising, I suppose—the Japanese getting mentioned in discussions of Korean national issues is like Hitler getting mentioned on internet message boards), but I got to witness the interesting sight of a demonstrator defending the Japanese.

At any rate, it was apparent that the man making the accusation wasn’t playing with a full deck. He stepped off to one side as the news crews moved in to film the demonstrator, but he continued arguing to anyone who would listen that the demonstrator was crazy and/or in the wrong. I don’t think he convinced too many people.

In an example of bitter irony, the Korean writing on the building in the upper left of this photo says, “Happy New Year” (literally, “Receive much fortune in the New Year”).

I probably stayed here the longest, just watching the people and looking up at the gate every now and then to take a photo. Pretty soon I could no longer feel my fingers and toes, and I was starting to lose feeling in my face as well. So I continued my clockwise walk around the gate and came to this sign.

The white-on-blue text gives the gate’s name, “Seoul Sungnyemun.” The text beneath that gives the designation (National Treasure No. 1), the year it was built (1398, or the 7th year of the reign of King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty), and its location (Jung-gu Namdaemun-ro 4-ga 29).

To the right of this sign is another sign describing the “Watchman Ceremony” held at the gate. The English text on the sign is as follows:

The Pasu Ceremony was a military ritual during the Joseon Dynasty that connected the opening and closing of the City Gates at Injeong (10 pm) and Paru (4 am), with the Patrol Ceremony. Considering the standing and role of the Ceremony among central military rites, it was considered just as important as the guarding of the Royal Palace.

I thought this sign was interesting on two levels. As I approached I saw a construction worker standing there, reading the sign. Another worker stood a short distance behind him, looking over his shoulder.

On any other day, would he have stopped to read that sign? Would anyone have? I probably wouldn’t have. I don’t know when this sign was put up, but I’ve been to Namdaemun a number of times and yesterday was the first time I actually stopped to read it.

I found the sign itself to be interesting as well. To me, it stands as a sad reminder that the supposed guard of Namdaemun was just empty ceremony with no real substance. The past tense in the last sentence (“was considered”) does not exist in the original, and thus it is not an entirely accurate translation, but it seems to be painfully on target.

It wasn’t getting any warmer, and I decided to leave before I got frostbite. Before I left the immediate area, I looked up to see another KBS crew and a reporter standing on top of a bus, getting ready to shoot yet another clip for the news.

I continued walking southwest toward Seoul Station, turning to look back over my shoulder at the gate at regular intervals. I finally had to tell myself that I wasn’t going to look back any more, and I just walked straight to the subway.

I don’t know when I will see Namdaemun next, but I imagine the restoration or rebuilding project will be well underway by then. They’re still trying to clear away the debris—and I’m not just talking about the debris from the burned superstructure. The police have caught the man who started the fire, but this is too big for the blame to settle on one man only. The administrator of the Cultural Heritage Administration has submitted his resignation, but he’s now being investigated on charges of accepting a bribe (this is totally unrelated to the Namdaemun incident—a brief mention of the bribery charge can be found here (Korean source)). Meanwhile, everyone is trying to figure out what went wrong and how to prevent something like this from happening in the future.

One of the most tragic aspects of this whole thing is the ridiculous reason for the arson. The arsonist, Mr. Chae, was apparently unhappy with the amount of money he was receiving for his land from the development company that bought it from him. It could have been worse—in his confession to the police, he said that he considered attacking a subway train, but then changed his mind. (More information on Mr. Chae and his motivations can be found in this Korean article.)

I have little sympathy for this man. Plenty of people get upset when things don’t go their way, but most of these people don’t go around burning down national treasures (after scrapping plans to attack a subway train and cause who knows how many casualties). However, there is no doubt that this man should have gotten help. After all, this wasn’t his first arson attempt—he started a fire in a nearby palace in 2006. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be held accountable for his actions, but I think there was a definite failure on the part of society to deal with him properly (I’m not the only to think this, of course (again, in Korean)).

If we’re going to be perfectly honest, though, there is only so much you can do about people like this. There are always going to be people who are a few rolls of kimbap short of a picnic, and though you can try to help them all, some are going to slip through the cracks. The real problem here was the sad state of security at Namdaemun—it’s absolutely ridiculous that an old man with some accelerant and a couple of lighters could slip through the security measures and burn down Korea’s number one treasure.

This was indeed a tragedy, but hopefully it will serve as a wake-up call. Korea wants to present a good face to the world, and a lot of work has been done to publicize Korea’s cultural heritage (I’ve participated in a number of these projects myself). But publicizing this cultural heritage is only half of the problem—you also have to manage and protect it properly. Thankfully, it seems that this incident has galvanized the nation and shaken things up quite a bit. I just hope that it’s not a temporary outpouring of rage, and that it lasts and produces some real, tangible results. I would be very happy if this were the last time I had to write about a national treasure being destroyed.

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