SEOUL, Feb 11, 2008 (AFP) - South Koreans mourned the loss of a 600-year-old building designated as the nation's top cultural landmark, which collapsed in ruins early Monday after catching fire.
Police said they are investigating whether arson sparked the blaze at the Namdaemun gate in the heart of Seoul, one of the few historic structures to have survived the 20th century Japanese occupation and Korean War.
"People must feel hurt by the fire," president-elect Lee Myung-Bak, a former city mayor, said after touring the site. "This is a symbolic place that people want to visit whenever they come to Seoul."
Cheon Ho-Seon, spokesman for current President Roh Moo-Hyun, expressed grief at the "indescribably regrettable" blaze.
"It was our heritage, more significant and more symbolic than any other cultural asset," Cheon said.
Ordinary Koreans inspecting the sooty and charred debris also expressed grief. "It is heartbreaking," said Kim Duk-Il, 40, a visitor from the southern city of Daegu, wiping away tears.
"The gate had endured 600 years," Kim told AFP. "It remained OK even during the Korean War. I still cannot believe this. Our pride has fallen down."
The ornate two-storey building on a stone base, the city's oldest wooden structure, caught fire Sunday evening. Scores of firefighters battling the blaze believed it was under control late Sunday but it flared up again.
Yonhap news agency said a taxi driver who reported the fire told investigators he saw a man in his 50s climb the stairs to the gate shortly before the blaze started.
A police forensic team was Monday sifting through debris at the site, which was surrounded by scaffolding and a screen.
"Police have not drawn a conclusion yet - whether there was a short-circuit, arson or an accidental fire," Kim Yong-Su, captain of the Namdaemun police station, told reporters.
"Police are still investigating this with all possibilities in mind." He said three witnesses reported a suspected arsonist but they were giving "confusing" testimony.
The gate, a major tourist attraction, was originally constructed in 1398. It was rebuilt in 1447 and has since been frequently renovated.
Some pillars dated back to the original structure, a rarity in Seoul.
Japanese colonialists razed several historic buildings during their harsh 1910-45 rule and much of the city was destroyed during the 1950-53 Korean War.
"It's devastating: the pride of the nation has collapsed. It's so bad this kind of thing happened on the first weekday of the Lunar New Year," Kim Cheol-su, 55, told Yonhap.
The agency quoted firefighters as saying the Cultural Heritage Administration had asked them to tackle the blaze cautiously, meaning they could not quickly break into the area where the blaze started.
The landmark, surrounded by modern office buildings, is officially named Sungnyemun or "Gate of exalted ceremonies." It was the southern gate in the walls that surrounded Seoul during the Chosun Dynasty of 1392-1910.
It is adjacent to Namdaemun market, a centuries-old market popular with locals and tourists alike.
The Cultural Heritage Administration forecast a long and costly restoration.
"Experts estimate that it will take two to three years to rebuild its architecture and cost some 20 billion won (21 million dollars)," Shim Dong-Jun of the historic architecture division told AFP.
"It's like losing a family member," said Kim Jae-Bun, who has run a drug store nearby for 30 years. "I never imagined it would burn down so helplessly."