On my last morning in South Korea, I visited this set of brick buildings.
The appearance of these buildings are very charming – they certainly look nicer than 99% of the buildings in Seoul – and there were a number of local people jogging or leisurely strolling around in the morning.
It’s jarring to realize that these aesthetically pleasing buildings were originally constructed to imprison and torture Korean independence activists.
While in Japan, I visited the notorious Abashiri Prison (or rather, I visited the ‘historic’ Abashiri Prison, which is now a museum, not the new Abashiri Prison across the river which still serves as a maximum security prison). The original Meiji-era Abashiri prison was built as an architectural replica of a prison in Belgium, at a time when Japan was rapidly importing European ways. I’ve also been to the old Chiayi prison in Taiwan, which was also built by the Japanese in the 1920s. Meiji/Taisho era Japan took great pride in building quality prisons, and since more resources went into building prisons than most other kinds of buildings, they are nowadays held up as fine examples of architecture from that era, which is part of why old Abashiri prison and old Chiayi prison are now tourist attractions. Seodaemun Prison is also a beautiful prison – on the outside.
The Japanese built it even before they officially annexed Korea, and it was primarily used to break the resistance of the Korean people to Japanese rule – to be more specific, it was a place to lock up Korean independence activists.
Above is one of the cell halls, which looks very much like the halls of Abashiri. The guard standing up there startled me for a split second before I realized it was a mannequin.
The cells also … look much like cells from historic Japanese prisons.
One of the most famous inmates of Seodaemun Prison was Yu Gwansun, who was held in the woman’s section of the prison. She had been a student at Ehwa School when the Japanese colonial government shut down all Korean-language schools. She returned to her hometown in Chungcheongnam Province, and organized a demonstration of about 2000 people calling for Korean independence. She was arrested, and sentenced to 7 years in Seodaemun Prison. In prison, she continued to organize protests against Japanese rule. She was repeatedly beaten – the one photo which remains of her shows her at Seodaemun Prison with swollen cheeks. Eventually, the prison guards tortured her to death. She was only 17 years old when she died.
There is an exhibit dedicated to the torture methods that Japanese prison guards used on Korean independence activists. The overall presentation of the prison really, really emphasizes how horribly the Japanese imperialists treated the noble Korean independence activists.
Seodaemun Prison was also used by the South Korean government for decades, and some people criticize this exhibition for focusing too strongly on the early Japanese era, and not enough on how the South Korean government used it until it stopped imprisoning people here in 1987.
I am not qualified to judge. I knew about this criticism in advance, so I was surprised to see so many references to the South Korean use of the prison in the exhibits. At the same time, I know a lot less details about how the South Korean government used the prison than how the Japapnese colonial government used the prison.
This is the execution room, restored to how it looked in the 1920s.
Above is the chamber for hanging people.
The Japanese prison guards used this secret tunnel, right behind the execution room, to quickly remove dead bodies discreetly.
I got in just as Seodaemun opened to the public in the morning. Before I left, many, many schoolchildren had already poured in. There is something incongruous about hearing ordinary Korean teenagers and cheerful little kids in a place like this.
Then again, this wasn’t the best place to go on my very last day in South Korea. However, I felt that I should come here to pay my respects to a painful part of Korean history, and this was my last chance to do it.