Disturbing history, in a peaceful setting

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Disturbing history, in a peaceful setting

For years, Seodaemun Prison has been an icon of shame and disgrace. After all, this is where independence activists were imprisoned, tortured and executed during the Japanese occupation of Korea.
Yet on the surface, the prison compound, which was built in 1908 by the colonial authorities, has a strange beauty. Its minimalist, red brick exterior captures the modernist style; the sharp, geometric buildings seem more meditative than intimidating, reminiscent of medieval monasteries in Eastern Europe.
Maybe this says something about the beauty of historical monuments. Seodaemun Prison, which has become a citizens’ park, almost seems peaceful now.


A tour of Seodaemun Prison starts in the compound’s main building, where inmates were interrogated in underground detention rooms before being dispatched to their cells. Here, museum planners have used mannequins to create life-sized dioramas depicting scenes of torture, complete with blood and the recorded sounds of whipping and screaming. In a showroom upstairs, testimony from a Korean prison guard describes the scene hauntingly; he tells of cells so poorly lit that flashlights were needed even in the middle of the day, and of soundproof walls for muffling screams.
Descriptions of torture prove to be a major part of the Seodaemun tour. Severe beatings with bats are said to have taken place here; more imaginative methods of torture ―such as injecting water mixed with hot pepper into noses and mouths, or burning parts of the body with an iron while the prisoner’s hands and feet were tightly bound ―are also said to have been common practices.
Walking through the prison, one becomes increasingly perplexed by what seems to be a deliberate attempt to provoke anti-Japanese sentiment. Of course, there is no denying the brutality of what happened here. Documents detail “whipping working rules,” strategies for producing maximum pain.
The showroom upstairs has examples of “wall coffins,” too small to stand up straight in, where inmates were confined. (A museum staff member hints that the torture dioramas are less detailed than they could have been, because many school children come here for field trips. Nevertheless, prominent in the second-floor museum is a stark black-and-white photograph of a man whose head appears to have been split open.)
But for all of the historical documentation here, there seems to have been a lack of reflection about Seodaemun’s history since the liberation of Japan. For decades, it continued to be used as a prison by the Korean military regimes; hundreds of political prisoners who were jailed here for violating the National Security Law have come forward in recent years to describe the torture to which they were subjected.
Yet there is hardly any indication of that in the museum. Indeed, the abundant racist, anti-Japanese graffiti scribbled on the walls by recent Korean visitors is as disturbing as the descriptions of torture are.

On the second floor of the main building is a showroom detailing the history that led to the establishment of the prison. A chronology leads up to the Japanese annexation of Korea, and the signing of the Eulsa Treaty, which gave Japan the authority to dissolve the Korean army.
One exhibit uses a hologram to depict independence activist Kang Ugyu’s attempt to assassinate Saito Makoto, a Japanese naval officer and one of the primary figures in the occupation of Korea. It explains why the attempt failed, and shows Kang throwing a bomb in Namdaemun Station, injuring some colonial officials.
In another building on the prison grounds, there is a “prison experience room” where visitors are invited to vicariously experience tortures from the inmate’s perspective. One can climb into a small, confining box, or sit in a chair, press a button and feel a vibration meant to simulate electric shock. A sign at one of these simulations warns senior citizens and pregnant women not to try it.
Another building contains underground cells that were used to keep female inmates in solitary confinement. There are four cells, each barely big enough to hold an adult woman.
Ryu Gwan-sun, a renowned female independence activist, died here at the age of 19, from malnutrition and complications from repeated torture. Many of the prisoners at Seodaemun died from such complications.
The underground cells for women were buried under concrete by the Japanese at the end of World War II; they were discovered much later, and restored when Seodaemun was made into a park in 1992.
After the liberation of Korea in 1945, Seodaemun’s name was changed to Seoul Prison. It became Seoul Jail in 1961, and Seoul Detention House in 1967. In 1987, the prison was relocated to the city of Uiwang in Gyeonggi province. Much of the prison has been restored since then. An octagonal watchtower remains intact; of the wall that originally surrounded the prison, about a quarter still remains.
There are seven main prison buildings at Seodaemun, which could hold up to 500 inmates. The buildings are laid out in a “T” shape, which made it easier for the prison supervisor to monitor activity from the center.
The largest building was constructed in 1915, designed by a Japanese architect who had been a prison chief in Japan. It has long corridors, lined with small cells facing one another.
The layout of this part of the compound was built with the specific purpose of confining political dissidents. During World War II, however, part of it was used to manufacture goods for Japan’s military, using inmates as laborers.
One building is called the “leper’s building”; it was reserved for inmates with infectious diseases. Moving past it, following the path, one comes to a building that was used for executions, surrounded by red brick walls about five meters high.
Inside the building is a wooden chair and a dangling noose. In front of the gallows was a couch for witnesses. A secret tunnel leads from the gallows to the public cemetery outside the prison.
Beside the path to the execution building is a poplar tree, where inmates being led to the gallows were allowed to stop for a moment’s lamentation. A legend has it that this tree has never grown to its full capacity because of the tormented spirits of those who were executed a few steps away.


by Park Soo-mee

To get to Seodaemun Prison, take subway line No. 3 to Dongnimmun Station and use exit 5. Admission is 1,500 won for adults, 500 won for children.
English tours are available if booked in advance; some of the text accompanying the exhibits is in English.
For more information, call (02) 363-9750.
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