South Korea's No. 1 national treasure reopens after five years

South Korea's No. 1 national treasure reopens after five years

Seoul's 600-year-old Great Southern Gate burned to the ground in an arson attack. A $23 million makeover has brought it back to life
South Korean President Park Geun-hye presided over the restoration completion ceremony this week.

After a massive, five-year restoration project involving 35,000 workers, scientists, historians and artisans, Sungnyemun, Korea’s top-ranked national treasure, finally reopened to the public this week.

Commonly known as Namdaemun or the Great South Gate, Sungnyemun is considered the most important historical and cultural treasure in South Korea for its 600-year-old history as well as its symbolic role as protector of the king and capital, which was why it was given the official title of the number one national treasure by the government's Cultural Heritage Administration. 

Following a Buddhist ritual known as cheondo, meant to rid the building of bad luck, the May 4 celebration was marked by a military band parade, music, dancing, prayer ceremonies and free admission to all four royal palaces in Seoul.

After an arsonist set fire to Sungnyemun in February 2008, the country watched their TV screens in horror at images of the 600-year-old icon blazing into the night. The building finally collapsing into itself, despite the frantic work of more than 300 firefighters.

The fire began at 9 p.m. on February 10, 2008, and blazed until 2 a.m. The fire headlined local media for weeks as the nation mourned the destruction.

As shocking was the realization that the landmark had little security to protect it from the arson attempts of a 69-year-old man, who reportedly explained his actions by saying he hadn't been paid enough for land he'd sold to a development company.

Number one treasure

Erected in 1398, the tiled and painted gate was Seoul’s oldest building, having withstood numerous Chinese and Japanese invasions.

Located next to the largest traditional market in South Korea, Namdaemun originally served as an entrance to the walled capital city. In recent decades it became a popular tourist attraction.  

Following the fire, the first floor remained 90% intact, while the second floor was 90% demolished. The five-year restoration, which cost ₩24.5 billion ($23 million), became a heartfelt nationwide effort, with individuals donating pine wood and others privately raising funds. 

“A number of things were changed about the gate in the restoration -- we reverted back to how it was before the Japanese changed it during the occupation,” a member of the restoration team told CNN.

“The stairways were widened to the size they were before the occupation, and, of course, we also focused a great deal on fire resistance."

The five-year, $23 million restoration project involved 35,000 people. Despite the landmark being restored to its former appearance, Koreans have not yet forgotten their sense of loss and anger at the devastation of the arsonist's work.

“It’s still heartbreaking and embarrassing that we allowed our number one national treasure to get burned up,” said So Hyun Lee, 24, an office worker who works across the street from Namdaemun.

“All the restoration work in the world can’t make it what it was before.”

Sungnyemun, Namdaemun-ro 4-ga 29, Jung-gu, Seoul; open Tuesdays-Sundays 9 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mondays; upper story tours available every weekend. In honor of the reopening, the gate’s opening hours have been extended until 7 p.m. every evening in May. 

More on CNN: Seoul's architectural wonders

Frances Cha is a Digital Producer at CNN Travel. 


Read more about Frances Cha