Model of deception and expedienceExcept for the high wall around it, it looks like a one-room schoolhouse, or perhaps a summer cottage.
But it is a place that many entered, and few left.
It is the gallows of Seodaemun Prison. It sits at the western end of the grounds. The prison proper sits just beyond where Seoul’s western wall once stood.
The symbolism is deliberate: in Korea, west is the way to death. All corpses were carried out of the city for burial through the western gates.
It looks harmless, for it is not what we expect of a prison gallows.
A Western gallows is a high structure from which a condemned man is dropped. This is a one-story building; there seems no room to drop a body here in such a way that the fall would tighten the noose and snap the neck.
Step around to the side, and you will see part of the answer. Peer in the window, and you see a noose hanging over a plain wooden chair.
The condemned sat, noose around his neck. A trap door opened, and he dropped into darkness below. There is a vast cellar below the visible structure.
The symbolism again seems deliberate: as in the West, the Korean hell is underground.
On the surface, so to speak, the chamber would have seemed a model for a civilized, modern execution in its day.
Built in 1907 under Japanese supervision, Seodaemun Prison was a symbol of how Japan might help develop backward Korea.
Hanging, which was supposed to be relatively painless, replaced Korea’s earlier, messier means of execution ― beheading with long swords.
Instead of an unseemly public spectacle, the execution was private, with a few observers watching from benches, like a jury, to make sure all went properly.
But once Japan took total control in 1911, the convicted criminal was always Korean, and often a leader of the Korean resistance. The panel of observers was always Japanese.
Private executions were politically useful. Resistance might be galvanized by a public martyrdom. Better for local heroes to disappear.
At the entrance to the chamber stand two poplar trees: one outside the compound wall, one within. Planted at the same time, the outside tree is stories tall, the one within barely man-high. This might have to do with the shade from the wall, but legend says the inner tree is stunted by the ghosts of the unjustly executed.
Now step around to the back of the chamber. Stairs descend in darkness to a door on the left. The dead body was hauled up these stairs, and out a rear exit. Beyond is a door in the outer prison wall, beyond the door a tunnel. Through this hidden tunnel the corpse was spirited, to be disposed of secretly.
Yet again to the west, and underground: to torment beyond death. And relatives would be unable to find the corpse. There would be no chance of performing the ancestral rites to calm troubled spirits.
Shout a word of protest into the tunnel, if it is open when you pass. The echo is uncanny. You can imagine in it the tormented ghosts of thousands still shouting their protests back.
Symbolically, this tunnel before which you stand is the entrance to hell.
What was designed to look like progress and humane treatment to international observers of the time was, in fact, a calculated form of emotional torture for Koreans who resisted Japanese authority.
To visit the prison and gallows, exit Dongnimmun station (subway line No. 3) and cross Dongnip Park to the prison gate. The execution chamber is concealed at the extreme west end of the grounds.
by Stephen Roney