Namdaemun gate had been designated South Korea's "number one national treasure" [Reuters]

A 600-year-old ceremonial gate in the South Korean capital, Seoul, has been destroyed by fire.

 

The blaze left the wooden structure of the Namdaemun gate - deemed the country's "number one national treasure" - in ruins.

 

The fire broke out late on Sunday and some 360 firefighters battled for more than five hours trying to save the monument, but eventually it collapsed.

 

Firefighters struggled for more than five
hours to try to save the gate [Reuters]
The gate was built in the 14th Century during the Joseon Dynasty and originally formed part of a wall that encircles the city.

 

Lee Sang-joon, an official at the National Emergency Management Agency, said arson was suspected.

 

One witness reported seeing a man climb the stairs that led to the gate shortly before the blaze broke out.

 

However, police officials sifting through the sooty remains on Monday said it was too early to conclude what was to blame.

 

"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."

 

South Korea's cultural heritage administration said it would take at least three years to fully restore the gate and it would cost some $21m.

 

Our pride has fallen down

The loss of the gate caused many visitors to express grief over the charred remains.

 

"It is heartbreaking," Kim Duk-Il, a visitor from the southern city of Daegu, told AFP while wiping away tears.

 

"The gate had endured 600 years… It remained OK even during the Korean War. I still cannot believe this. Our pride has fallen down."

 

Much of the South Korean capital was destroyed by heavy fighting during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Source: Agencies