Poor Security Blamed for Gate Burnout
By Kim Rahn
Security loopholes were detected after an overnight destruction of the nation's top treasure Sungnyemun Gate, also known as Namdaemun, in central Seoul.
Experts said that the fire that destroyed the city's landmark wooden architecture was destined to happen due to the opening of the treasure to the public without appropriate security measures. They said the seeds of the accident were sown in 2006 when the gate was open to the people with the exception of second floor of the gate.
Despite the free access to the gate, only six infrared sensors and four CCTVs were installed around it, with no monitoring inside the gate, police said.
Eight fire extinguishers were the only anti-fire equipments for Sungnyemun, according to the Cultural Heritage Administration and Jung-gu ward office. There were neither fire alarms nor sprinklers.
KT Telecop, a security services unit of KT Corp., has been in charge of security of the gate since late January. The security firm failed to spot the fire immediately and its security officials were on the scene later than firefighters.
As to the start of the fire, night lighting equipment had the possibility of short circuiting, while arson was feared as people could easily access the gate.
Three workers from the ward office guarded Namdaemun on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. when the arched gate at the center of the structure was open, and one worker on weekends.
During nighttime, however, the cultural asset was guarded by an unmanned security system of the security firm. Some pointed out that the blaze could have been brought under control at the start of the fire if a night duty worker had been stationed there.
``Three workers are posted there during the daytime, but their main job is opening and closing the gate, providing information to tourists and checking the condition of the structure. We had only an unmanned security system at night, so it was difficult to take immediate measures against fire or other damage occurring at nighttime,'' a Seoul City official said.
He said a state managed system should have been prepared ― for example, the government directly managing cultural properties or providing an adequate budget to local authorities in charge of management.
After the fire at Naksan Temple in Gangwon Province in April 2005, which destroyed a bronze bell, Treasure No. 479, the administration has promoted a disaster prevention project at major wooden cultural heritages, setting up fire-fighting equipment at four temples so far. Sungnyemun was included in the project, but had not been equipped with such systems.
The official also said that the law on cultural property protection focuses only on ``preserving the assets in their original forms,'' and thus restricts installing fire-fighting equipment.
``To keep the cultural properties' in their original forms, the law allows only simple fire-fighting equipment such as fire extinguishers. Installing equipment using electricity, such as fire alarms, is restricted to prevent possible damage to them,'' an official of the National Emergency Management Agency said.
Lee Sung-won, deputy cultural property administrator, said Monday that the authorities will make efforts to restore Sungnyemun as it was.
Besides Namdaemun and Naksan Temple, the nation has seen several cases of fire, which resulted in damage to cultural heritage sites. In April 2006, a man set one of the buildings in Changgyeong Palace in central Seoul on fire. In May 2007, fire started by an arsonist demolished a wooden pavilion in Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, a World Cultural Heritage. Earlier this year, two middle school girls set fire to a grass field near the fortress while searching for their cell phones.