[Outlook]Blame gamesSungnyemun, which is more often called Namdaemun, a landmark in Jung District, central Seoul, burned down on the last day of the Lunar New Year holiday. It is unbelievable that such an incident happened in the middle of central Seoul. Namdaemun used to serve as a gate to Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty and it still symbolizes an entry point to central Seoul.
To lose our National Treasure No. 1 to fire is the same as losing our cultural heritage.
Namdaemun was built in 1398, the seventh year of the reign of Joseon Dynasty founder King Taejo, as the south gate of a wall surrounding Seoul. Namdaemun, the largest and oldest of the gates of its kind, had been preserved for more than six centuries.
It has been renovated several times but did not lose its original shape. In the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 and the Manchu War of 1636, palaces were burned, but Namdaemun survived.
Now it has burned in the middle of the capital of a highly advanced country. High-tech firefighting equipment didn’t seem to be especially useful, which is why the disaster has left many people speechless.
In 1962, the law protecting the nation’s cultural heritage was established, and Namdaemun was designated as National Treasure No. 1. But there was a debate and some pointed out that the Japanese designated the gate as a treasure while they occupied Korea.
Some maintained that the No. 1 National Treasure is the country’s symbol so it should be replaced by the stone sculpture in Seokguram Grotto or Hunminjeongeum, the Korean alphabet devised by King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty.
Some maintain that we should eliminate the system that numbers the nation’s national treasures. But the numbers are nothing but the order in which the items were designated as national treasures. However, many people argue that the numbers imply that the No. 1 National Treasure is more valuable and important than the rest.
It is not right to debate this issue when the numbers do not have much meaning. What’s more important is to adopt and implement policies to preserve our cultural heritage and hand it down to younger generations.
Among the objects designated as national treasures in Korea, many are made of wood. In 1986, the 476th National Treasure, the Daejeokgwangjeon Hall of Geumsan Temple burned down.
After this incident, special substances to prevent wooden structures from catching fire were developed, and the Cultural Heritage Administration has applied them annually to important wooden cultural treasures.
In April 2005, a forest fire in Yangyang in Gangwon Province engulfed Naksan Temple, burning 14 buildings and even melting its bronze bell, the 479th National Treasure.
The Cultural Heritage Administration has since worked hard to preserve what remains of the temple and to restore it. Despite these experiences, it seems there were no useful measures in place to deal with the fire in Namdaemun. One even wonders if anti-flammable substances were applied to the structure, the least that could be done, or if there was a sprinkler system inside the gate.
If the fire had been controlled in its early stage, the entire gate would not have burned down. The damage would have been minimized. One naturally wants to ask how the fire department responded. Did they only spray water on the stone base without considering the characteristics of the wooden structure?
If this was the upper limit of the fire department in the capital city, we might as well conclude that Koreans are completely incompetent when it comes to putting out fires.
But after the incident took place, different offices will try to pass responsibility to one another. The Cultural Heritage Administration will ask the Jung District Office to take responsibility, saying that it trusted the Jung District Office with the maintenance of Namdaemun.
The Jung District Office in return will say that it has no responsibility for a national treasure.
The National Emergency Management Agency will have something to say about why it could not get the fire under control in its early stages. This shows that our society is not orderly.
We must prepare measures so that this kind of incident does not take place again in the future. Fortunately, the structural layout of Namdaemun remains, so it won’t be too difficult to restore the building. But it is not necessary or important to restore the building quickly.
We must have a thorough investigation and conduct research first. We must devise measures to preserve and protect not only wooden but all types of cultural treasures.
*The writer is the director general of the Land Museum and former director general of the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Cho You-jeon