A visit to Seodaemun Prison


Seodaemun Prison History Hall was built during the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1908 and used to imprison anti-imperialist activists for 40 years. Then, after World War Two when the Japanese were kicked out and the civil war ended, it was used to imprison pro-democracy activists. That’s a fact I’ll return to.

This didn’t bode well:


The museum/prison was well-organized; I just followed the signs that led me through the entire complex. It exposed the sordid story of how the Japanese Empire used Korea as a source for raw materials and cheap labour, inside and outside the prison.

I’d hate to be remembered like this:


A problem quickly became apparent: although the Japanese imperialists committed horrific crimes at Seodaemun Prison, the right-wing military dictatorship that took over after the civil war picked up where they left off. There were a few mentions of this:


But the vast majority of displays focused on the earlier nationalist struggle. I kept wanting to ask, “OK, but what happened after?” It was hard to tell; instead there were heroic displays of the Korean ‘people’ and their fight.


They might have been a little frustrated:


Presumably a torture manual:


Nothing mind-forged about these manacles:



The room of the martyrs focused exclusively on those whom the Japanese killed. It was quite moving in its breadth:

I looked for the martyrs I would’ve liked to have known – the cool kids, basically.



She looks like she knows what’s coming:


“Fuck you” in any language:


Given this was the 1920s and 30s, communists were heavily involved in the anti-occupation movement. I found it useful to compare the actions of the different groups. The communists organized terrorism and general strikes:



One of the Joesun communists:


The Christians published a magazine:


The academics organized a language school:


I’m not disparaging their sacrifices, they all died together nobly for the cause. It’s just that the communists aimed a little higher.

I was surrounded by school groups who, having been taken out on a field trip, were damn sure they were going to enjoy themselves, even in a recreated room designed for families to pick up their loved one’s corpse:


I exited onto the stairs, where a smiling young woman in uniform called out to me, “Go downstairs please!” and gave a little bow. Downstairs was the torture chamber:



That chopstick is not for eating:


This was the most surreal aspect of the whole experience. Someone had rigged up a video display where you stood at the back of a room, and waved your arm at a big screen opposite to indicate man or woman. A computer would then take a picture of your face in front and in profile, and superimpose it on a short drama. ‘You’ were led to an interrogation room, yelled at by a guard, had boiling water poured on you, then you ended up in a cell, raising your arms and calling out independence slogans. There was no simulated execution, unfortunately. The problem – well, let me just pick one – is that the people who most wanted to see themselves on screen were children. So the video image, when it appeared, was of a normal-sized person with a freakishly small head.


I wanted her in my shot. This is a torture chamber where you can’t stand up or move around. Koreans like her got inside and posed for their friends:


I hope I’m never converted to imperialism:


Look, it’s the panopticon! This is one of the few photos taken after the civil war. These aren’t national liberation fighters, they’re Korean student and worker radicals.


They’ve left a piece standing:


This was off the main tour, but someone had left a gate open so I wandered upstairs. I was treated to mannequin guards who looked quite lifelike close up:


I was touched by the displays of daily life in prison. Bowls for prisoners:


Bowls for guards:


The prison operated for over 40 years in the name of this flag, but I don’t think that’s what it’s supposed to signify:


One of the few places where leprosy could be a blessing. Just sitting up there watching your limbs fall off would be better than working:


Next door was the execution building, where it was forbidden to take photos. Prisoners sat on a chair in front of a tribunal, with a rope around their neck. An executioner would pull a lever and the floor would open beneath them. I found it interesting that the lever was behind the chamber: the executioner never had to see his victims die.

Burns: What are you doing in my corpse hatch?
Wiggum: Montgomery Burns, you’re under arrest for murder.
Burns: Uh, did I say “corpse hatch”? I meant, “innocence tube.”



This explanation, while technically accurate, is an obfuscation. Yes, the Japanese used a corpse hatch; but the Korean dictatorship also executed people. They would be buried in unmarked graves if their families didn’t pick them up. Often the families wouldn’t, not wanting to be tainted by the knowledge that their relatives had died awful deaths for being communists, as now their entire extended family was blacklisted by the government.

Not a bad place to be worked until you died. The photo doesn’t convey how hot it was that day, however:


The prison was built with bricks from another nearby prison – this is the seal of its kiln:


Believe it or not, there was a gift shop. I was itching to get through the designated tour because I wanted to see what a prison gift shop could possibly market as souvenirs. Turns out, quite a lot – here’s a diorama of an pro-Occupation American diplomat being executed:



This little guy was everywhere:


He was the Seodaemun Prison mascot designed, as the book says, to be a positive representation of an independence activist. He smiled and gave the thumbs-up in every room.


When they were handing out mascot jobs, I think he got a raw deal.

I don’t have any grand statements on historical memory. It showed me both the depth of feeling around the Japanese occupation, provoked by the sacrifices of people who gave up everything for the nation. I hope that some day, equal time will be given to those who fought for the working class against their own nation’s rulers.


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