Seodaemun Prison History Hall serves as a chilling reminder of the Japanese occupation of Korea during the 1900’s. Formerly used as a prison, the buildings are now used as exhibition rooms. Located in Independence Park in the north of Seoul, you can get to it by Dongnimmun subway.
Japan first tried to seize Korea in 1592, when nine separate armies raped, killed and looted their way across Korea. Temples and palaces were razed to the ground, and countless Korean treasures were stolen. Thousands of ears clipped from dead Koreans were shipped back to Japan where they were built into a big mound and preserved, to this day, as a memorial to this ‘war’. With help from Chinese troops, Admiral Yi Sun-Sin won a series of victories at sea and succeeded in pushing the Japanese back.
Records of the 5,000 activists who lost their lives during the Japanese occupation
However, Japan tried once again to colonise Korea at the end of the 19th century. After surprising defeats over both China and Russia, the path to take Korea was left open. It became a Japanese protectorate in 1905, then on August 29th 1910 Korea became a Japanese colony.
This was seen as a rather strange development at a time when most colonial empires had been broken up. What also made Korea an unusual colony was that it already had most of the prerequisites to be developed nation in its own right; a language, a culture and well established borders.
Cells at Seodaemun Prison
During the occupation the traditional Confucian education was replaced by a modern Japanese system, the Korean rulers were replaced by Japanese rulers, even the Korean language was replaced by Japanese. The Korean people felt that the Japanese had robbed them of their sovereignty, their independence and their dignity.
Some of the prison buildings
On March 1st 1919 the fight to reclaim Korean independence began, with the first public displays of resistance. The death, and suspected murder, of the former King Gojong and the public reading of the Korean declaration of independence in Seoul sparked a series of protests up and down the country. Over 2 million people participated in 1,500 demonstrations. According to Korean records 7,500 people were killed, 15,800 were wounded and 46,300 were arrested, although the Japanese figures are much lower. March 1st is now a national holiday in Korea when people remember the struggle for independence.
The building where 18 year old Yu Gwan-sun, one of the main leaders of the March 1st movement, was imprisoned and tortured to death
After many years of suppression and brutality, Korea finally achieved independence on August 15th 1945. The Japanese surrender to the Allied Forces liberated Korea from their colonial rule.
The execution building
For most Koreans the Japanese rule was seen as illegitimate and humiliating, and to this day many Koreans, even the younger generations, resent the Japanese. My co-teacher often joins us when we visit places at the weekend but she said no to this. It would be too painful for her.
A Korean child bowing and paying his respects at the Reverence Monument
The rivalry between the two nations continues today as they compete with each other over technological advances, sporting achievements, and in particular over an uninhabited heap of rocks in the East Sea (Sea of Japan!) called Dokdo (or Takeshima!) that they both claim as their own.
One of the prison buildings
Seodaemun Prison History Hall focuses on the treatment of independence activists and pro-democracy activities at the hands of the Japanese during this period. Several exhibition rooms explain the history of Seodaemun, the chain of events that led to the Japanese occupation, and the various resistance movements. One room is dedicated to displaying the records of the 5,000 who lost their lives during the fight for independence. You can also visit the underground torture chamber, the cells, the factories where prisoners were forced to make textiles, the execution building, and the building where Yu Gwan-sun, one of the main organisers of the March 1st movement was imprisoned and eventually died during torture.
The watch tower
This is undeniably one of the darkest periods of Korea’s history, and there is still a lot of anger, hurt and resentment, but one thing I did take away from Seodaemun Prison was a sense of hope. Reading the testimonies of survivors, and how many of them are still political activists, was inspiring. Hopefully Japan and Korea can continue to build a better relationship for the future.
An old man and his dog at Independence Park