Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Seoul Museums: Part 2 - Seodaemun Prison History Hall

On a clear, cold day in late March we visited our next museum in Seoul. This time it was the sombre, imposing Seodaemun Prison History Hall in northern Seoul near Inwangsan mountain and Dongnimmun subway station. This former prison stands as a symbol of the bravery of the Korean Independence activists and as a grim reminder of the cruelties committed by Colonial Japanese forces during its occupation of Korea. 

One of the red brick buildings of Seodaemun prison against the backdrop of modern apartments buildings in Seoul.
Around half of the original red brick prison buildings have been preserved as well as the entrance gate, the wooden execution house, two watchtowers, the prison walls and the interrogation cells.   

Seodaemun Prison was constructed in 1907 during the time when Korea was a protectorate of Japan before it was formally annexed by Japanese forces in 1910 (Korea was occupied by Japan for 35 years from 1910 to 1945). The prison opened in 1908 under the name Gyeongseong Gamok with the name not changing to Seodaemun Prison until 1923. The prison was used by the Japanese to hold Korean independence activists and it could house up to 500 people. However, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, "up to 3500 (prisoners) were packed inside during the height of the anti-Japanese protests in 1919". This of course led to the usual spread of contagious diseases caused by overcrowding and a lack of proper sanitation, which, combined with a shortage of food, torture and regular beatings led to many prisoners dying in custody. There was also no heating provided in the harsh Korean winters so many prisoners died of frostbite and hypothermia. According to Lonely Planet, around "40,000 freedom fighters passed through the entrance gate and at least 400 died or were killed inside, including Ryu Gwan-sun, an Ewha high school student , who was tortured to death in 1920."   

File:Yu Gwan-sun.JPG
Ryu Gwan-sun, the famous 18 year old martyr of the Korean Independence movement.  She was a Christian Korean freedom fighter and helped to organise a peaceful protest against the Japanese occupation in her province. The Japanese police shot and killed 19 people at this protest including her parents and arrested her. She was tortured to death in Seodaemun prison.(photo from Wikipedia)

This room was a memorial to all the Korean freedom fighters who were imprisoned at Seodaemun. The walls were covered in photos of the prisoners.

There were hundreds of photos on the walls and  some of the Korean prisoners looked disturbingly young. 

After the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, the prison continued to be used by successive South Korean governments until it was finally closed in 1987. As you'd expect, there wasn't much (any) information on how the prison was used once it was in South Korean hands. I did see that the South Korean government fitted toilets in the prison once they took it over though as there hadn't been any in the whole building under the Japanese occupation.

According to this sign, the Japanese made "excrement holes" in the solitary confinement cells. An excrement hole was a "hole at the corner of the floor through which urine and stools were discharged". You can still see the drainage outlets for these holes on the outside of the buildings. The purpose of these holes in solitary confinement was to make sure that the inmate did not have any human contact as the hole meant that no cleaning was necessary.

On  this prison building you can still see the square "excrement holes" in the walls.

In 1992, the complex was turned into the Seodaemun Prison History Hall, a part of Independence Park and it is now an interesting though extremely graphic museum. Walking around Seodaemun Prison History Hall was quite a weird and nightmarish experience as it contained several realistic displays of the torture that went on there using life sized manikins in period costumes as well as some of the actual torture devices used by the Japanese guards. We found it quite disturbing but the kids looking round seemed to find it entertaining - suppose that's kids for you! 

A manikin mocked up as a rather lazy looking Japanese prison guard. 

A mock up of a prisoner being interrogated and forced to sign some kind of a confession. The displays take visitors through the journey of a Korean freedom fighter imprisoned in Seodaemun.

After the interrogation, unlucky prisoners might be dragged down to the underground torture chambers where they faced horrific suffering and violence.

Some poor manikins stoically awaiting their turn in the torture chambers. The holding cells were right next to the torture rooms so that the waiting prisoners could hear the screams of those already being tortured.

It's a little difficult to see in this photo as the quality is rather poor but this display depicts a Korean prisoner being hung upside down by the feet while a Japanese interrogator stands by with a kettle of water during a water torture session. I think the aim was to make the prisoner feel like they were drowning. Water boarding, Japanese style. 

Another rather imaginative form of torture used on the Korean prisoners. A prisoner would be forced to get into this wooden cage lined with long sharp nails pointing inwards. Then the guards would shake the cage.

This poor manikin had torn clothes and fake blood painted on it presumably having just been tortured before being put in this tiny underground cell. 

These small wooden coffin shaped cupboards were another form of torture. The prisoners would be locked inside and once inside, they were unable either to stand up or sit down properly due to the shape of the box. 

One of the strangest aspects of the prison museum, for me anyway, was how interactive everything was, even the torture displays! I had a go at being locked inside one of the torture cupboards and I saw a guy being manacled to a table by his giggling children - a pretty bizarre sight! I thought this was maybe a bit of a flippant treatment of such a serious subject but I think museums are generally a lot more interactive in Korea and that's what the population like and expect so fair enough. 

Me locked inside one of the torture cupboards. It was an intensely unpleasant and claustrophobic experience. Just a minute in that thing was really cramped and uncomfortable. I can only imagine how agonising it must have been for long periods. 

The weirdest and most disquieting of all the interactive displays in the prison was the one in which the visitor got to experience the journey of a prisoner through Seodaemun, from interrogation to execution. It was in a small room with a large TV screen on one wall and a blue painted wall at the back. The TV screen showed footage of a prisoner being taken to Seodaemun Prison, interrogated, tortured, tried and finally executed with a soundtrack of patriotic cheering and shouting from the Korean resistance and the sound of marching with the odd scream thrown in where appropriate. The visitor had to stand with their back to the blue painted wall and have a picture taken of their face. This image was then superimposed onto the silhouette of the prisoner in the video. So basically, you got to watch yourself being tortured and executed in Seodaemun Prison, kind of!

 The little girl standing in the blue corner is having a picture taken of her face, the first step of the experience. Note the cheerful expression of the girl in the foreground. The kids loved this thing! Execution has never been so much fun.

The footage of the prisoner being marched away amid lots of patriotic shouting on the soundtrack. The little girl's face is superimposed in black and white onto the prisoners face..

Next comes the interrogation stage.

Then the water torture.

This is me being marched away to the execution site.

Here's a short clip of 'me' being interrogated and tortured in Seodaemun Prison.

After all the fun and games of the torture chambers, we had a look round some of the old prison buildings. They included a Leper house, a security block and several original cell blocks. 

The red brick prison buildings draped with the South Korean flag.

Inside one of the prison cell blocks. A manikin guard stands watch overhead.

The majority of the prisoners were kept in these rooms, often in terribly overcrowded conditions. You can still see the square 'excrement hole' in the back wall.

A manikin prisoner in the thin summer uniform tries to communicate with inmates in the next cell by tapping.

Above you can see the 'paetong', a piece of wood that the prisoners could push from inside their cell that, when hanging down, alerted the guard to an emergency in the cell.

After a look around the prison buildings, we wandered around the grounds and saw the memorial to the 90 or so names of people that are known to have died in Seodaemun. Many more than that died but these are the only known names. We also saw the original guard towers, prison walls and the execution building. Visitors were not allowed to take photos of the wooden execution building to respect the people who died there.

A memorial to the people who died in custody at Seodaemun prison. 

The prison walls and one of the old guard towers.

The corpse removal exit that was used to take the bodies away after execution. Apparently, this passage was made by the Japanese to slip the corpses out secretly  and it wasn't discovered until 1992.

This was a rather mysterious looking building wasn't standing anymore when we visited the museum. According to the sign it was the 'playground' of the prisoners.

This tree is known as the "wailing popular" and it was planted in 1923 right next to the execution building. According to the sign next to the tree, it was aid that 'patriots in the course of being dragged to the execution hall grabbed this tree and wailed with deep resentment for their unachieved independence'.


  1. grim stuff! pretty medival, no wonder the japanese aren't too popular in those parts. laura

  2. The one that wasn't standing when you went there has been rebuilt. It was for the prisoners to exercise in. I talk about it here: http://aroseinkorea.blogspot.kr/2012/03/seodaemun-prison.html

  3. Dear Rowan and Sophie,
    I am doing a school project on Ryu Gwan-sun. I would like to cite your blog for my project. Would you please confirm that you took the pictures for your blog. Also, may I please have permission to use your pictures.
    Thank you,
    Izzy in Maryland