S. Korea unveils restored cultural treasure

Five years after it was burned down in an arson attack, South Korea Monday unveiled its newly restored Namdaemun gate, a national treasure painstakingly rebuilt at a cost of millions of dollars.

The cultural jewel in central Seoul will reopen to the public on Saturday, following one of the longest and most expensive restoration projects ever undertaken in South Korea, involving hundreds of highly skilled craftsmen.

"Using traditional methods and materials, we've done our best to restore it to its original state," said Kang Kyung-Hwan, head of the government's Heritage Conservation Bureau.

Seoul's 600-year-old Namdaemun (South Gate) is listed as "National Treasure Number One" and a source of immense cultural pride.

The largely wooden structure -- which survived the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War -- was reduced to ashes by a disgruntled 69-year-old man with some paint thinner and a cigarette lighter on February 10, 2008.

The five-year, 27-billion-won ($24 million) reconstruction project involved 35,000 people, including more than 1,000 craftsmen who used traditional tools to restore the gate to its former splendour.

"The restoration took longer than we originally thought because my team used no modern tools, only chisels and hammers," Lee Eui-Sang, a 72-year-old master stone carver, told AFP on Monday during a tour for the press.

"At first I was so nervous about restoring our precious national treasure, but I've poured all my energy into rehabilitating our crucial cultural heritage," he said, stroking a new base stone.

The restoration team said the original stones and materials were used as far as possible, while they left some scorched wooden pillars in their damaged state to alert the public to the danger of fire.

Fortress walls that were destroyed during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule were returned to their original forms and reconnected to the gate.

"It's wonderful to see our foremost national treasure again. The gate looks unfamiliar due to its fresh paint but I think our pride has been restored," said Lee Un-Seok, a 35-year-old engineer passing by the gate.