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Controversy erupts over fundraising for historic gate

All Headlines 14:21 February 13, 2008

By Shin Hae-in

SEOUL, Feb. 13 (Yonhap) -- Controversy has flared up over President-elect Lee Myung-bak's suggestion of launching a national fundraising campaign to restore the nation's burnt-down historic gate of Namdaemun with a majority appearing to be against it.

Over 75 percent of citizens are against the proposed fundraising for restoration of the gate, while a mere 24 percent support it, a local newspaper Maeil Business said, citing a Monday poll of 4,494 internet users.

Critics ask why they should open up their pockets to pay for the government's failure to prevent the tragic incident.

"Lee should not dare to take advantage of the public sentiment when the government and the city are fully responsible for the incident," said 48-year-old taxi driver Lee Yong-chan. "I can't believe that he is thoughtless enough to bring up the idea of raising public funds when officials haven't even been held responsible yet."

Proponents support a nationwide drive to invoke people's awareness of protecting national treasures.

"Before calling the government to account, I agree with the idea that we should all make efforts and show our affection for rebuilding our treasure," said internet user babatt23 on a local web portal site Naver.com.

President-elect Lee is under attack as he was the one to push for opening the gate to the public and allowing free access when he was the mayor of Seoul from 2002 to 2006. The gate was first opened to the public in March 2006.

The decision was welcomed by many at that time. Today, however, some people are slamming the move as "reckless and impetuous," although others say those who should be blamed are the firefighters and the authorities, who failed to properly maintain and protect the structure.

"Lee is the first to blame for the incident as he is the one who decided to open up the gate to the public and remove the guards," said internet user 007jackaroo. "I have no intention of paying a single penny to restore the gate for the incumbent government or the incoming government."

On Monday, President-elect Lee suggested restoring Namdaemun with donations from the public.

When putting forward his proposal during a meeting with his transition team officials, Lee said, "Although the gate can be restored with the government budget, I believe that it will be more comforting and meaningful for the public to make contributions."

The reconstruction of the 610-year-old landmark is estimated to cost about 20 billion won (US$21 million), and take up to three years, according to the Cultural Heritage Administration.

Striving to sooth public anger, Lee's transition committee emphasized that his "good intentions" had been misunderstood.

"President-elect Lee did not mean that the financial burden should be laid upon the public," committee chairwoman Lee Kyung-sook said Tuesday. "The government budget will of course be used mostly in restoring the gate, but the president-elect merely suggested raising funds to include the public in the meaningful process."

Meanwhile, Lee's political rivals are increasing their attacks against the proposal as the issue becomes a "passing the buck" game among political parties, all hoping for wins in the April parliamentary elections.

The pro-government United New Democratic Party -- soon to be officially merged with another minor liberal party -- criticized Lee's "thoughtless idea," claiming that the government should be fully responsible for the restoration.

The new conservative party launched by former Grand National Party Chairman Lee Hoi-chang also attacked the idea, releasing a statement saying that the party was opposed to the incoming leader's plan.

South Koreans were shocked at the loss of Namdaemun, an historic icon at the center of Seoul that burned down on Sunday, the last day of the Lunar New Year holidays.

Namdaemun meaning the "great gate of the south" was one of the four gates in the wall that was built during the 1392-1910 Joseon Dynasty to demarcate its capital. It was one of the few Korean artifacts that survived the Japanese invasions in the 15th century and the 1950-53 Korean War.

Now surrounded by skyscrapers on one side and the crowded Namdaemun traditional market on the other, the stone and wood gate was designated as South Korea's National Treasure No. 1, although the list of national treasures is not in order of importance.


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