중앙데일리

Gate was ‘easy to approach and poorly guarded’

Suspect arrested on a charge of arson told police he was mad at government

Feb 13,2008
Police forensic investigators yesterday examine the rubble of Namdaemun, Korea’s No. 1 National Treasure, which caught fire Sunday night. [YONHAP]

A former fortune-teller burned down the country’s No. 1 national treasure because he was angry at the government, police said yesterday.
The suspect, Chae Jong-gi, 69, confessed to setting the fire that destroyed the 610-year-old gate. He told police he chose the site because security there was light.
“The suspect had even considered terror attacks on the public transportation system, including a plan to overturn a train, but decided not to due to the risk of high casualties,” Nam Hyeon-wu, head of the criminal investigation unit of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, told journalists yesterday at a press conference.
Chae has a 2006 conviction for setting fire to a building in Changgyeong Palace in central Seoul.
According to Nam, Chae set the Namdaemun fire because he was angry about the amount of compensation he received for his house from a construction company that carried out a development project from 1997 to 1998. Chae filed formal complaints with the government, Nam said, but they were ignored.
Police arrested Chae Monday night near his ex-wife’s house on Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul. The suspect confessed only 30 minutes after his capture, Nam said.
According to police, Chae’s crime was premeditated. The suspect surveyed Namdaemun in July and December of last year, Nam said.
Quoting his testimony, police officials said Chae arrived at Namdaemun around 8:35 p.m. on Sunday, carrying an aluminum ladder and three 1.5-liter bottles of paint thinner. He wore a mountain climbing outfit and carried two lighters.
Chae climbed up the western wall of the gate carrying the ladder. Then he used the ladder to enter the tower. Once there, he walked up the center stairwell to the second floor. Chae sprinkled the floor with the paint thinner and started the fire, the police said.
After confirming the gate was in flames, Chae left and got into a taxi. He visited his son’s house in Ilsan afterward, police said, then went to meet his ex-wife that night. Based on witnesses’ reports and his previous arson conviction, the police tracked Chae to Ganghwa Island.
Nam said a paint thinner container and leather gloves he used at the time of the arson were sent to the crime lab.
After his capture, Chae apologized. “I am sorry to the people,” he said. “No words are enough to express my apology to my children and the people.
“I did it because I was angry about the compensation issue and my previous arson conviction at Changgyeong Palace,” Chae was quoted as telling police. “I chose Namdaemun because it was easy to approach and poorly guarded.”

Chae Jong-gi, the suspect charged yesterday with destroying Namdaemun. [YONHAP]
After setting fire to one building inside Changgyeong Palace, damaging a wall and a small gate in 2006, Chae was nabbed by witnesses and handed over to the police. He initially admitted to the arson charge, but changed his position as the trial proceeded.
During the trial, Chae again admitted to the arson. The Seoul District Court convicted him but showed leniency, saying he is elderly and had repented.
Chae received an 18-month suspended sentence and a 13 million won ($13,800) fine. If convicted of the Namdaemun fire, he could be sentenced to up to life in prison.
According to the police, Chae continued to deny responsibility for the 2006 palace fire. The police also made public a three-page memo that Chae wrote a year ago, in which he insisted on his innocence.
“I asked the judge to conduct a scientific investigation, but he didn’t,” Chae wrote, adding that his lawyer and family forced him to make a false confession.
“I feel victimized,” Chae continued in the letter. “I am weak in society and the burden of the heavy crime is on my shoulders. I was divorced. My children persuaded me to make a false confession, but later blamed me for the crime. I hate the world. My only wish is that my children will not see me as a criminal.”
Chae has four children.
“My father did not even finish elementary school,” a 48-year-old daughter of the suspect said in an interview. “When he encountered legal matters, he did not know what to do. He filed petitions many times about the land compensation, but it was useless. I think that is why he harbored rancor.”
Although police yesterday said Chae has no record of mental illness, at least two experts said he appeared to be suffering from antisocial personality disorder. “He is blaming the state and society for his wrongdoing,” said Pyo Chang-won, a criminal psychology professor at Korea National Police University.
Professor Lee Soo-jung of Kyonggi University agreed. “Because Chae is suffering from delusions of persecution, the land compensation issue is nothing more than an excuse,” Lee said. “What he really wanted was an opportunity and channel to try to justify himself to the public.”
In February 2003, Kim Dae-hwan set fire to a subway train car in Daegu, killing 200. “Kim and Chae are similar because they both harbored hostility in their hearts, blaming their misfortunes on society,” Lee Chang-mu, a professor of Hannam University, said.



By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter/ Chun In-sung JoongAng Ilbo [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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