Namdaemun is a major landmark in Seoul, attracting foreign tourists. Officially known as Sungnyemun, it is also commonly referred to as Namdaemun. However, Namdaemun not only exists in Seoul, but also is in Kaesong, North Hwanghae Province, North Korea. What is the history behind the same but different Namdaemun in the North and the South?
Sungnyemun Gate (Namdaemun) in Seoul, Dropped the National Treasure No. 1 Title after 87 Years
Sungnyemun Gate, the oldest among the existing wooden buildings in Seoul, is one of the four main gates of the city walls built to protect the capital of Joseon, which is present-day Seoul. It has been called Namdaemun for a long time since it is located in the south and the Korean word ‘nam’ means south, but its official title is Sungnyemun Gate. Sungnye means respecting and propriety, and the name of the gate comes from the five virtues of Confucianism including benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness. During its long history Sungnyemun has suffered all kinds of hardships and even dangers of demolishment. In particular, during the Japanese colonial period, most of the city walls were demolished as Japan constructed major streets in Seoul and the gate was also subject to demolition. Sungnyemun only avoided demolition as Japanese general Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611), who led the Japanese army during the 1592–1598 Imjin War, was believed to have entered Seoul through the Sungnyemun Gate during the war. Later in 1934, Japan designated the treasures of Joseon and assigned the Treasure No. 1. to the Sungnyemun Gate. When the Korean government started to designate national treasures and treasures in 1962 after independence, it inherited the old numbering system and Sungnyemun Gate continued to be known as Korea’s “National Treasure No. 1” for the next 87 years. In 1996, a controversy was sparked over the “meaningless” numbering of national treasures and the Cultural Heritage Administration decided in 2021 to remove the number assigned to national treasures, putting an end to the decades-old controversy.
Kaesong Namdaemun, the Only Remaining Gate of Kaeseong’s Inner Walls
While the Sungnyemun Gate, also known as Namdaemun, in Seoul is the symbol of South Korea’s capital, Namdaemun in Kaeseong is the symbol of the North Korean city. Part of the Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Namdaemun Gate is the south gate of the inner walls of Kaesong, which was built to protect the city. The Namdaemun Gate in Kaeseong is known as one of the best wooden structure from the late Goryeo period, but it also could not escape the history of suffering.
Kaesong Namdaemun was the battlefield during the Second Strife of Princes in the early Joseon Dynasty era in 1400, but it was on the verge of being torn down by Japan who were demolishing town walls under the Japanese colonial rule. However, Kaesong residents strongly opposed the demolition and Namdaemun survived while the inner walls and East and West Gates were torn down. The adversity did not end there. The gate was destroyed during the Korean War and was restored in 1954 after the war.
The gate houses the Bell of the Yeonboksa Temple, one of the five famous bells of Korea. The bell, which weighs about 14 tons, was originally hung at the Yeonboksa Temple located south of the gate. It was moved to the upper story of the gate in 1563 (18th year of King Myeongjong) when the temple burnt down. The bell tolled to mark the hour for the people of Kaesong until early in the 1900s.
Many heritage were lost or destroyed during urban development under the Japanese colonial rule, the Korean War, and later in the process of urban reconstruction and expansion. Seoul and Kaesong’s Naedaemun Gates are no exceptions. They were under the threat of disappearance as they went through the history of suffering, but through restoration, they continue to carry the history that might have been lost.