Historic face-lift falls flat in Seoul

SEOUL - South Korea's botched attempt to restore a burned-out national treasure to its 600-year old glory has triggered a bout of national hand-wringing 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, which had managed to survive the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War, was listed as National Treasure No.1 and was a source of fierce cultural pride.

Although it was almost burned to the ground, a decision was quickly made to rebuild and, from the outset, the state Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) stressed that the reconstruction should be carried out as faithfully to the original as possible.

Five years and $23 million (S$28 million) later, the restored gate was unveiled to great fanfare in May.

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

"One day when the wind blew hard, I found a lot of flakes from the painting that had fallen to the ground," a tourist guide at the gate told AFP.

The damage triggered some extensive finger-pointing, with experts, bureaucrats and the media blaming over-ambition, a rushed timeline 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 been focused on the CHA, which was responsible for the reconstruction.

Last week, the administration issued a public apology, but stopped short of accepting responsibility pending an inquiry into the handling of the work.

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.

At the same time, many of the skills and techniques that went into the original had been long lost, and not enough time or effort was spent on researching them prior to the start of the reconstruction work.

Namdaemun was one of four gates built to protect Seoul when it was the capital of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 1392 until the Japanese occupation in 1910.

"The problems with the painting occurred because we attempted to employ traditional paint and skills which have been lost and not yet fully restored and understood," a CHA official said.

Hong Chang-Won, a master decorator who oversaw the painting work, said the peeling may have been the result of over-application of a white primer used to accentuate the brightness of the overlying coloured designs.

"It's embarrassing and regrettable that we have provided a cause for public concern," Hong said.

Kim Wang-Jik, a government cultural heritage advisor, said the underlying problem was not so much one of poor workmanship but rather a tendency to rush the project.

"It was absurd to try and do it all within five years," Kim said.

As for the large, running cracks in the timber, the project's chief carpenter Sin Eung-Soo, 71, also cited time constraints as the main cause.

While the CHA insisted that all the timber had met government standards, Sing told the JoongAng Daily newspaper that it would normally take seven to 10 years to dry the wood needed for such an undertaking.

"We couldn't wait that long. We had to use whatever wood was given," Sin said. "That is why we are seeing cracks and distortion, in particular in the joints."