An overnight fire left one of Seoul's great landmarks in ruins Monday, destroying the centuries-old wooden structure atop the Namdaemun gate that was deemed South Korea's No. 1 national treasure. One official said he suspected arson.
The fire broke out Sunday night at the 610-year-old gate that once formed part of a wall that encircled the capital. The structure later collapsed as firefighters tried to put out the blaze, officials said.
Lee Sang-joon, an official at the National Emergency Management Agency, said arson was suspected. However, police said it was too early to conclude what was to blame and that they would launch a joint inspection of the fire site with other officials.
"We should investigate by considering all possibilities," said Kim Young-soo, head of the central Seoul police station handling the case.
Some 360 firefighters worked to bring the blaze under control, Lee said, adding that no one was injured in the accident.
President-elect Lee Myung-bak visited the scene of the fire earlier Monday and deplored the destruction of Namdaemun, the namesake of Seoul's central district and a major tourist attraction.
"People's hearts will ache," Lee told officials as he received a briefing.
The two-tiered wooden structure was renovated in the 1960s, when it was declared South Korea's top national treasure, and again in 2005. The government opened the gate, officially known as Sungnyemun, to the public in 2006 for the first time in nearly a century.
The gate had been off-limits to the public since Japanese colonial authorities built an electric tramway near the gate in 1907. Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula in 1910-45.
Cultural Heritage Administration said it would take at least three years to fully restore the gate and it would cost some $21 million.
"There is no problem in restoring the gate to its origin" Kim Tae-young, an administration official said, adding that the administration has detailed plans after measuring the gate in 2006. (AP)
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