Police officers take a 70-year-old man identified as Chae into custody at Namdaemun Police Station, Seoul, Tuesday. Chae allegedly confessed to setting fire to Sungnyemun ― also known as Namdaemun ― Korea’s National Treasure No.1.
/ Korea Times Photo
by Won You-hun
By Kim Tae-jong
Police arrested a 70-year-old man Tuesday after he confessed to the premeditated arson of Sungnyemun ― also known as Namdaemun ― the 610-year-old south gate in central Seoul out of anger against the government over a land compensation dispute.
Police say the man, identified by his family name Chae, was mentally sound although he will undergo a medical and competency checkup.
Chae committed the arson after he concluded that the authorities were ignoring his petition against developers who allegedly did not pay him in full for land he sold them, said Nam Hyun-woo, head of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency's criminal investigation unit.
It is the second time the senior citizen has committed arson. In April 2006, he was given an 18-month jail sentence suspended for two years and fined 13 million won after being found guilty of starting a fire that demolished part of Changgyeong Palace in Seoul, a World Heritage site.
Nam said that Chae initially targeted another artifact but changed his plan because of tight security. He also allegedly thought about committing a terrorist attack on public transportation such as a bus or subway train but abandoned this idea for fear of causing massive casualties.
``Instead, he picked Sungnyemun because of its easy access and relatively poor security,'' Nam said.
After the fire, police put Chae on their suspect list because of his previous conviction for arson.
From information in his criminal record and with the assistance of witnesses, police officers were able to trace him to the home of his former wife late Monday on Ganghwa Island, northwest of Seoul, where they apprehended him.
During a search of the remote house, police found a bottle of paint thinner, an aluminum ladder as well as clothes and gloves, which were used in the arson. They also found a four-page handwritten letter by Chae expressing his frustration about the lack of appropriate payment from the developers.
According to police, Chae visited the gate last July and December to reconnoiter the area.
In keeping with his plan, he climbed a ladder to the second floor of the gate on the left side of its wall around 8:40 Sunday, sprinkled paint thinner on the floor and set fire to it with a disposable lighter at around 8:45 p.m. He immediately left by the same route, leaving bottles of unused thinner, a backpack and the ladder at the crime scene.
The fire engulfed the country's National Treasure No. 1, gutting the wooden parts of the gate despite a five-hour battle to put out the blaze.
The Sungnyemun gate is one of the four gates in the wall that surrounded the capital during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). It has served as an iconic landmark, surviving a series of historical catastrophes from the Japanese invasions of the 16th century to the 1950-53 Korean War.