Historic face-lift falls flat in Seoul


South Korea’s botched attempt to restore a burned-out national treasure to its 600-year-old glory has triggered a bout of hand-wringing across the country over cultural mismanagement and the loss of traditional skills.

The destruction of the 14th-century Namdaemun Gate in an arson attack in February 2008 was viewed as a national tragedy. The largely wooden structure was listed as National Treasure No. 1 and was a source of fierce cultural pride.

Although it was almost burned to the ground, the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) stressed the reconstruction would be carried out as faithfully to the original as possible.

Five years and $23 million later, the restored gate was unveiled to great fanfare in May.

Barely five months afterward, however, large cracks have appeared in some of the main pillars and roof timbers, and paint has started peeling from the hand-colored decorative work.

The damage triggered some extensive finger-pointing, with experts, bureaucrats and the media blaming overambition, a rushed time line and a lack of money and knowledge of traditional techniques.

On Monday, President Park Geun-hye became involved, calling for a thorough investigation into the “shoddy restoration” and warning that anyone found to be involved in “irregularities” would be held accountable.

Much of the media criticism has focused on the CHA, which was responsible for the reconstruction. Last week, the administration issued a public apology, but stopped short of accepting responsibility.

The general consensus is that the desire to use traditional methods to restore the landmark structure was incompatible with the project’s budget and five-year deadline.