[Outlook]A tragic reminder

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[Outlook]A tragic reminder

A series of questions face President-elect Lee Myung-bak, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and You Hong-joon, the head of the Cultural Heritage Administration.
What do they think the loss of Sungnyemun, or Namdaemun, has cost us?
Is it simply a 600-year-old wooden structure?
If we spent three years and 20 billion won ($21 million) to build a new wooden gate and call it Sungnyemun, can we truly say that Sungnyemun is restored?
Will people be consoled by the news that Lee says we will build a new one as quickly as possible?
It is amazing to see that these officials don’t grasp the essence of the miserable incident even though they are responsible for it in one way or another. It is suspicious that they are in such a hurry to begin talking about restoration plans.
Is this a trick to avoid public criticism by shifting people’s attention to restoration?
Lee pushed through a measure to open Sungnyemun to the public when he was the mayor of Seoul but he made the mistake of not preparing proper safety measures for one of the the country’s most valuable cultural assets.
Oh and Yoo also bear responsibility for negligence of duties that left the precious wooden gate vulnerable to vandalism by people who have grudges against society.
Now let’s travel through time from the present to the past.
Sungnyemun is valuable and precious because it has accumulated a wealth of memories during its 600 years of existence. Within the building, eras swirled, were prolonged and repeated.
Sungnyemun was a capacious container that held the present and provided a link to history.
It contained the spirit of the people, the spirit of the times.
When the wooden gate was destroyed in flames, the trace of the times that it had embraced also disappeared in the smoke.
It is thus impossible to restore Sungnyemun.
We have killed it. Vandalism against cultural assets cannot be justified or sanctioned in any case.
But it is more regrettable that Sungnyemun was destroyed due to the lowly motivation of a person who had no respect for culture and history.
If we also call a new structure Sungnyemun, it is merely a convenient promise or a sign. But a new building can not match the true meaning of Sungnyemun.
Whether we continue to designate the gate as National Treasure No. 1 or not is for future generations to decide in some 600 years. By then, the new Sungnyemun will be regarded as one of many wooden structures built in the 21st century.
Lee and Oh talked about plans to restore the treasure as soon as possible, but their talk do not carry an understanding of the serious nature of the incident.
A new bogus Sungnyemun is not and cannot be Sungnyemun.
If we decide to build a building in place of Sungnyemun, we need to take our time and prepare properly.
We should make a valuable monument.
Master carpenter Shin Eun-soo says that building wooden structures is an art completed by time. He wrote in his book that people assume freshly cut lumber can be used right away for building a house, but it needs to be dried for three years to become proper building material.
If new lumber is used to build a house it dries slowly and becomes warped little by little, which causes distortions in the house, according to Shin.
Carpenter Choi Ki-young, an Intangible Cultural Asset, says sometimes lumber is steamed in a large container to shorten the time needed to dry it. But if so, the wood is usually fissured or distorted.
To find large trees of good quality is equally difficult. Wood used for the rafters of Sungnyemun must be pine trees older than 60 or 70 years, and pine trees older than 150 years are needed for beams and purlines.
As Choi says, the country is small and people have been cutting down trees and haven’t planted new ones. So there is an absolute shortage of the right kind of pine trees to build or restore valuable buildings, such as palaces or other cultural assets.
The restoration of Sungnyemun is such a complicated and difficult task that we can’t simply talk as if a time estimate and proper funding will be enough to bring it back.
The arsonist will be punished in accordance with the law.
The rest of us must also continue seeing the remains of Sungnyemun and feel guilty for not having protected it.
In our times, soft power has become increasingly important, so we need to appreciate and treasure cultural assets even more. For that purpose at least, the sad scene at Sungnyemun must remain as it is for a long time to serve as a reminder.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie
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