[FOUNTAIN]Arson as sacrilegeFire is not just an essential element for our daily lives, but also has a very significant symbolic meaning. Zoroastrianism in ancient Persia considered fire an object of absolute worship. Our Korean ancestors treated fire as sacred. The kings of the Joseon Dynasty held a ceremony of distributing fire to the government offices around the country and to the court ministers on Cheongmyeongjeol, one of the 24 seasonal divisions marking a clear and balmy season. The ritual contained the wish to welcome the new spring and to remove antiquated conventions with new fire. Instead of giving away existing fire, a primitive method of rubbing elm tree and willow tree branches was used to make new fire.
During the Joseon period, starting a fire that destroyed property or took lives was considered sacrilegious. When a big fire broke out at a private house in Hanseong, today’s Seoul, in 1426, King Sejong decreed a fire prevention law and formed the Suseong Geumhwa Dogam, an equivalent of today’s National Emergency Management Agency. The king ordered the arrest of dozens of people suspected to be involved in the fire and condemed them to death. After that, every fire, no matter how minor, had to be reported to the king. King Seongjong, who reigned from 1469 to 1496, declared what we would call a “war against arson,” and put convicted firebugs to death. According to the “Daemyeongyul,” which recorded the sentences for each crime, an arsonist who set a fire to a government warehouse or a private house and caused major damage was decapitated with an ax or a sword. If a servant set his master’s house on fire, he would be hanged. A person who intentionally set his own house on fire was subject to 100 lashes, and if the fire harmed neighbors, he would be banished for three years after the beating. At a time when a serious political offender was sentenced to 100 lashes and banishment and minor criminals like a thief received 10 to 50 lashes, the authorities obviously thought arson was a serious offense.
In the last five years, an average of 3,063 fires per year were deliberately set, and the number is growing by 5 percent a year. The authorities have issued a special arson watch. Deaths are growing by a third annually and property damage is increasing by nearly 13 percent a year. Arson, along with murder, burglary and rape, can draw capital punishment. But unidentified arsonists continue to set fire to cars, subways, shops and wooded hills at dawn. Pyromaniacs are said to simultaneously feel pain and ecstasy through fire. For them the joy of arson is the pleasure that accompanies pain. We desperately need the wisdom of our ancestors, who considered fire sacred.
by Park Jai-hyun
The writer is a deputy city news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.