Police arrested a 69-year-old man suspected of setting a fire that destroyed the country’s top cultural treasure, the 610-year-old Namdaemun gate in Seoul, authorities said Tuesday.
The man, identified only by his family name Chae, was arrested Monday night on Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, Korean national news organizations said.
“The suspect has admitted he carried out an arson,” police official Lee Man-kook said Tuesday, without giving further details.
The fire broke out Sunday night and burned down the wooden structure at the top of the Namdaemun gate, which once formed part of a wall that encircled the South Korean capital.
Police have secured a letter from the suspect, in which he complained about the compensation of his lands in Gyeonggi province near Seoul and he set the fire to draw social interest, Yonhap news agency said.
Hundreds of stunned South Koreans gathered near the charred structure Monday night.
“My heart is burning,” Lee Il-soo, a 56-year-old man who runs a small business, said as he fought back tears. He said the fire had destroyed the pride of South Korea.
$21 million to restore
The two-tiered wooden structure was renovated in the 1960s, when it was declared South Korea’s top national treasure. The government built a plaza around the gate, officially known as Sungnyemun, in 2005 and opened it to the public the following year for the first time in nearly a century.
The gate — carrying a plaque reading “The Gate of Exalted Ceremonies” in Chinese characters — had been off-limits to the public since Japanese colonial authorities built an electric tramway nearby in 1907. Japan ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
The Cultural Heritage Administration said it would take at least three years to fully restore the gate and it would cost some $21 million. Some 360 firefighters fought to bring the blaze under control, said Lee Sang-joon, an official with the National Emergency Management Agency.
Yonhap reported earlier that police said Chae’s physical appearance and outfit matched those of a person witnesses said climbed the stairs of the gate shortly before the fire started. It added that police found a backpack and an aluminum ladder at Chae’s house that witnesses claimed the man was carrying at the scene. A bottle of thinner was also found in his house, it said.
Charged in 2006 fire
Yonhap said the man had been charged in 2006 with allegedly setting fire to the Changgyeong Palace in Seoul, which caused $4,230 in property damage. Yonhap quoted the police officer as saying Chae was only one of several suspects.
An official at a police station handling the case refused to confirm the report.
Firefighters found two disposable lighters at the spot where they believed the fire broke out, Yonhap reported earlier, citing fire official Oh Yong-kyu.
President-elect Lee Myung-bak visited the scene Monday and deplored the destruction of the landmark, the namesake of Seoul’s central district.
Kim Ok-ja, a 40-year-old public servant, said she could not sleep Sunday night after hearing of the fire because her heart was broken.
“I came here immediately after finishing work because my heart aches so much,” she said after offering a white flower, a traditional symbol of grieving.