A 600-year-old gate in central Seoul listed as South Korea's number one national treasure and the country's landmark symbol has been destroyed, possibly by an arsonist, police said on Monday.

The loss of the gate, whose history is drummed into South Korean school children from an early age, caused widespread shock and dismay to ordinary citizens, many of whom gathered to look in horror at a national icon reduced to ashes.

Officials said the fire that engulfed Namdaemun, or Great South Gate, was believed to have been contained late on Sunday but reignited after midnight, destroying the wooden structure, despite the efforts of more than 100 firefighters.

It feels like the pride of the nation and hope is lost and crumbled, said onlooker Lee Mimi, a Seoul housewife.

Kim Chul-min of the Culture Ministry said the gate was one of the few links to Korea's ancient history in a fiercely modernized city. Experts said a combination of structural design and misjudgment by nearly everyone involved led to the devastation.

Without doubt the fire could have been controlled in the early stage, said Professor Lee Su-kyung of Seoul National University of Technology, had the firefighters targeted the right spot. Someone could have gone inside the structure...I just don't understand.

Architecture professor and disaster prevention expert Roh Sam-kew of Kwangwoon University said key parts of the gate, including the oversized roof, were wooden, which made the blaze nearly impossible to contain once it began spreading.

Police said they were searching for a man whom a witness said broke into the stone and wooden structure and started the fire. However, they did not rule out an electrical fault as the cause.

We're investigating a number of possible causes of the fire, including arson and faulty electric wiring, said Namdaemun Police Station chief Kim Young-soo.

Police were also going through the tapes recorded by closed-circuit TV cameras near the gate but had not been able to identify a man entering the structure, Kim said.

Firefighters, who said they wanted to proceed cautiously to preserve Namdaemun, doused the structure with water but did not break through the roof or enter the wooden pavilion to extinguish the fire inside, police officials said.

The gate was constructed in 1398 and served as the main southern entrance for Seoul when it became Korea's capital more than 600 years ago and was a walled city, the Cultural Heritage Administration said.

Namdaemun has also been the centerpiece of the country's international tourism campaign, with scores of tour buses making a stop each day before visitors are ushered to the open-air market across the street that shares the gate's name.

The structure, also called Sungnyemun or Gate of Exalted Ceremonies, has been rebuilt several times, with the most recent major renovation taking place from 1961-1963, the agency said.

An official with the Cultural Heritage Administration said it would spend three years and 20 billion won ($21 million) to rebuild the structure.

($1 = 945.4 Won)