Arson-hit South Korean landmark reopens to public

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea on Saturday reopened its landmark Namdaemun gate to the public, five years after the historic jewel in central Seoul was burned down in an arson attack that shocked the nation.

The 600-year-old Namdaemun (South Gate), which is listed as "National Treasure Number One," has been painstakingly rebuilt at a cost of US$24 million (S$29.6 million).

The city landmark, also known as Sungryemun, was one of four gates built to protect the city when it was the capital of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 1392 until the Japanese occupation in 1910.

"Sungryemun is a symbol of national spirit and identity and the face of the Republic of Korea," President Park Geun Hye said in a speech at the opening ceremony, describing it as a "very happy moment".

"I believe the restoration of Sungryemun will not only rehabilitate our cultural heritage but also enhance our national pride and open the gate to a new era of hope," she said.

Ms Park, wearing a traditional Hanbok robe, and other participants unveiled a large wooden tablet bearing the gate's name.

They then swung open its studded wooden door watched by guards wearing traditional clothes and carrying swords, spears, and bows and arrows.

The restoration project - one of the longest and most expensive ever undertaken in South Korea - involved more than 1,000 craftsmen who used traditional tools to restore the gate to its former splendour.

All 22,000 roof tiles were made by hand. Raw materials for decorative paints had to be imported from Japan, since Korean specialists had lost the art of making them in the traditional fashion.

Fortress walls that were destroyed during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule were returned to their original form.

The largely wooden structure - which survived the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War - was almost reduced to ashes by a disgruntled 69-year-old man with some paint thinner and a cigarette lighter on February 10, 2008.

He torched the gate after claiming he had received insufficient compensation following the expropriation of his land as part of an apartment-building project in Seoul's northwestern satellite city of Koyang.

Its destruction in 2008 sent shock waves through the country, with sorrowful citizens swarming around the charred ruins, laying flowers and writing grieving messages.

The arsonist was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The gate will be open to the public every day from 9 am to 6 pm, except Mondays. To celebrate its restoration it will stay open an extra hour in May.