Sunday, February 17, 2008

Namdaemun in Ruins: Loss of Korean Historic Treasure Impacts Many

For decades, Korea’s rich heritage has been an area of personal interest and study. I see the Sungnyemun also called Namdaemun or Great South Gate as an icon of Korean past.

My first sight of Namdaemun was during a trip to Korea in the 1980s.
I remember driving by the ancient structure set on a bleak urban island amid a sea of traffic and highway.

Over the years, I have come to understand its historic and cultural significance. The 600-year-old gateway was once a key entry into the walled city-fortress of Seoul. I’ve used photographs of the gate in countless workshops and lectures--most often to link modern Korea to its rich past. I have also written about the gate in my historical writings.

Several years ago, a pedestrian walkway was build to access the structure. On my next trip to Korea despite frigid weather, I couldn’t wait to visit the site. Subsequent travel to Seoul usually included an obligatory stop at the Great South Gate.

On Sunday February 10 as I was preparing to leave on a business trip to Seoul, a Korean colleague phoned to tell me that the icon had been set on fire. Checking the Internet, early reports noted damage was minimal. Sadly, upon arrival in Seoul, I was informed that damage was massive. Moreover, local television conveyed that the fire reached deep into the Korean society. Media coverage was extensive. Even president-elect Lee, Myung-bak surveyed the site. (While mayor of Seoul, Lee was responsible for freeing the gate from decades of isolation imposed by a traffic circle ringing the structure).

By Wednesday, massive scaffolding was erected around the Gate. Hoping to gain deeper first hand insight, I visited Namdaemun on Thursday morning to witness the carnage and public response. Amid scores of construction workers sporting Samsung hardhats, an imposing superstructure was being erected around the massive gate.

A huge banner photograph of the South Gate stands as a reminder to all.

A makeshift, but solemn altar, allows onlookers to show their respect and acknowledge the loss.

On a positive note, public officials report all efforts will be made to rebuild Namdaemun. Others call for new tougher measures to protect and preserve Korea’s national treasures. Finally, for many, the fire has rekindled an appreciation of Korean heritage--despite the nation’s collective quest for 21st century globalization and modernization.

To conclude,
I look forward to the reconstruction. Like others, I hope that soon the Great South Gate will again grace Seoul’s urban landscape. My hope is that the fire spurs interest in preserving and protecting Korea’s historic treasures—a rich culture I, too, cherish.

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