Shin Eun-soo, a master carpenter who led the restoration work of Sungnyemun, explains how National Treasure No. 1 was restored in front of the ancient gate, Wednesday. Sungnyemun was burnt down in a 2008 arson attack. / Korea Times
By Kim Tong-hyung
After five painstaking years of preparation, Sungnyemun, the historic gate registered as Korea's No. 1 National Treasure, will be open to the public Saturday.
A team of architects, carpenters and historians had been deployed to rebuild what had been the city's oldest surviving wooden structure, which was torched by a disgruntled old man on Feb. 10, 2008, and burned through the night as the nation helplessly watched on television. About 25 billion won (about $22.7 million) and 30,000 people were involved in the restoration project.
The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) will hold a ceremony at the downtown Seoul gate at 2 p.m. to celebrate its reopening, highlighted by a performing arts programs directed by thespian Lee Yoon-taek. After the ceremony, Sungnyemun will be opened from Tuesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The master craftsmen, some belonging on the country's intangible cultural assets list, went to extreme lengths to make the two-story pavilion closest to what it was when it was originally built in 1398.
Modern methods and tools were strictly excluded, which made the rebuilding process at least twice as longer than it would have otherwise been, CHA officials said.
They worked with traditional chisels and axes, hammered stone into shape, fired hand-made tiles in old-style kilns, used traditional ''dancheong'' wood coloring instead of artificial paint, and made an effort to use as much of the surviving original timber as possible. The workers weren't even allowed T-shirts and jeans, being required to wear traditional clothing in sun, rain and snow.
The walls on both sides of the gate, which were demolished during the colonial era, were rebuilt close to their original shape. The modern elements were limited to installed smoke detectors, alarms, sprinklers and 18 close-circuit televisions.
But no matter how authentic the renovated Sungnyemun might be, it will be impossible to make up for the loss in the sense of cultural heritage and continuity. Gates can be rebuilt, but history can't be rewritten, and softening the wounds in the collective memory will have to do for now.
''Obviously, the process of restoration is based on a thorough study of the traditional methods, tools and materials. Our aim was not to restore Sungnyemun as it was before that night in February, 2008, but to its original form in the early Joseon Kingdom era,'' said Shin Eung-soo, the 71-year-old master carpenter who directed the carpentry work in the restoration project. Shin was also involved in a previous Sungnyemun restoration project in 1962 to repair damages inflicted during the 1950-53 Koran War.
''I can really say I invested everything I have into this. I hope we, as a nation, learn from this experience and will show more interest in preserving our cultural assets.''
To celebrate the reopening of Sungnyemun, city's four royal palaces ― Gyeongbok, Changdeok, Changgyeong, Deoksu ― will be opened for free admission for Saturday.