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Arsonist behind Namdaemun gate fire in Seoul imprisoned for 10 years

Friday, April 25, 2008

Firefighters extinguish the first portions of the fire.
February 11, 2008, the day after the fire.

The arsonist responsible for setting fire to the historic Sungnyemun gate (more commonly referred to as Namdaemun gate) in Seoul, South Korea in February has been sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. The 600-year-old landmark was considred one of the nation's greatest and most iconic, with some sources describing it as the single most important one in the country.

The 69-year-old male defendant has a previous conviction from two years ago for attempting to torch the Changgyeong palace, for which he received a suspended prison sentence and was fined. It is understood he destroyed the Namdaemun gate and attacked the palace over an unconnected land ownership dispute which had angered him. He felt that the compulsory purchase of his home a decade ago had been inadequatly compensated for by the state.

After the fire, residents left flowers at the scene and wrote grieving notes.

Chae Jong-Gi, who admitted the crime, was told of the seriousness of the offence in a statement by the Seoul district court. "A heavy sentence is inevitable as the accused inflicted unbearable agony on the people and damaged national pride... (The monument was) the treasure among all treasures which had survived all kinds of historic disasters. Even if restored, the gate's originality will never return. Therefore, the nature and consequences of this crime are very serious," said the statement.

The man is thought to have selected the gate as a target due to lax security measures. In the fire's aftermath, officials have been criticised over this and concerns that firefighting efforts were ineffective, and the Cultural Heritage Administration's chief resigned to show he accepted responsibility for the blaze.

The two storey gate in pagoda style was constructed in 1398 and despite a 1447 rebuild and multiple renovations still contained original timbers prior to the destruction in the fire. Only the stone base survived.

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, a reconstruction effort will take two to three years and cost 20 billion won (US$21 million).


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