Over the last few centuries, Japan invaded Korea countless times, but the most damning invasion was one of Japanese economic and political influence. Seodaemun Prison stands as testament to some of the worst atrocities committed against supporters of Korean independence.
What we knew about it.
Aside from the fact that it was a notorious prison that the Japanese were involved with, we knew nothing about it. Having previously passed up on the Hiroshima Memorial we were a little skeptical about whether we wanted to see something so emotionally charged. We steeled ourselves and headed in though.
Where to begin? This was one of the most moving experiences we have experienced abroad.
Gyeongseong Gamok, the original name for the prison, was built in 1907 and finished in 1908. It was not officially renamed to Seodaemun until 1923. These days, its official name is Seodaemun Prison History Hall.
Korea signed several treaties with Japan which allowed the Japanese to effectively invade the country with the stroke of a pen.
- The first, in 1904, guaranteed the Koreans protection by the Japanese against foreign invasion (Russia/China). In return, the Koreans were obligated to adopt Japan’s advice in terms of “improving administration” of Korean affairs.
- 1905’s treaty took away Korea’s right to diplomatic sovereignty and officially made Korea a protectorate of Japan.
- 1907’s treaty was the most damning. Korea lost the right to elect its own high-ranking officials, and also lost the right to control its own army. Korea was effectively under the control of the Japanese.
- 1910’s treaty officially annexed Korea as a Japanese territory.
Life under Japanese rule was harsh, and native Koreans fought back against the machine in all the ways dissidents do. The Japanese administration was faced with the question of what to do with these troublemakers. Seodaemun was the answer.
Looking at Seodaemun’s design, we see many implementations of the “fan” shape. The cell blocks were designed in the shape of a fan, where the warder could be stationed at the “hinge” of the fan and have clear line of sight down all three wings at once.
The same design was used in the construction of the outside exercise yard. All inmates in the yard could be monitored by a single warder positioned at the hub.
Seodaemun Prison was designed to accommodate 500 prisoners, but at its peak it housed as many as 3000. The cells are all open-air, and during our visit we were bundled up yet we were still bone-chillingly cold. We couldn’t imagine how bad the prisoners must have had it.
Placards indicated they were given winter wear, but they looked like nothing more than straw-stuffed cotton jumpsuits. Disease was rampant in the hotter months.
The cell blocks were much like one would expect from a prison. Multifunctional, reinforced doors separated prisoners from their freedom. The vertical slits on the walls activated some sort of emergency alarm.
The cells were ridiculously small, barely large enough for an adult to lay prone (this was most likely by design for discomfort). Sanitation came in the form of a bucket, which could be emptied through a hole in the exterior wall and flowed into a gutter.
One nasty trick the Japanese pulled was that arrested insurgents were not questioned at police stations. They were brought to and questioned at Seodaemun, under the skillful torture of trained military intelligence officers.
Japanese inquisitors used all manner of torture on Korean dissidents. There are a few exhibits on display with frighteningly realistic wax models of Japanese interrogators practicing their craft on unfortunate Korean prisoners.
- Water torture. The victim has a rope tied around their feet, then they are hoisted to the ceiling and lowered head-first into a bucket or tub of water. The idea is to simulate the effect of drowning.
- Fingernail torture. The victim’s wrists are bound to manacles upon a table, whereby thin shivs of metal would be shoved between the nail and the nailbed.
- Cages. A small wooden cage with spikes lining the inside. The victim is crammed into it, then the box is kicked and rocked with the victim inside.
- Standing cells. Around the size of a gym locker, the victim is made to stand inside it. The idea is that the space is too small for the victim to sit, but not tall enough for them to fully stand.
- Solitary confinement.
While we are inspired to feel bad for the suffering of Koreans at the hands of the Japanese, this is not exactly a unique transgression. Germany’s Schutzstaffel did the same during the heyday of World War II, Russia did the same during the glory days of the Cold War KGB, and America has done the same with its endless anti-terrorism campaign. Those arrested are hit with terrorism-related charges then held indefinitely as “enemy combatants,” where they are subjected to…torture. Every major world power has done, is doing, and will do things like this. Rather than singling out the Japanese, we should recognize that such treatment is unacceptable no matter who perpetrates it.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes often enough.
The yard was very bleak. Everywhere we went, over the walls all we could see (besides high-rise apartments) were the mountains looming over us. I’m not sure whether being nestled amongst mountains would lead one to feel trapped or optimistic that there was something beyond these walls.
Food rations for prisoners were doled out with ruthless Japanese efficiency. Prisoners were effectively fed a nutrient slop of rice, barley, and beans. Upon arrival at the prison, each prisoner was given a bowl that was theirs to eat from. When lost, the prisoner also lost their ability to receive food. While the rations were to be distributed in specified portions, the portions were generally less than they should have been and of quality inferior to that given to livestock.
Seodaemun Prison was a fully-functional work camp as well. Besides being forced to make their own clothes, military uniforms and other provisions, prison labor was also used to create bricks for construction. The bricks were stamped with the kanji for “Tou,” short for “Tokyo,” the capital of the Japanese Empire.
One building on the property used to be a facility for the manufacturing of varnish. The effluent was channeled into the pond below. Eventually the building stopped being used for making varnish and became a housing unit for prisoners with leprosy.
So many prisoners died in Japanese custody at Seodaemun Prison that the Japanese administration had a dedicated tunnel dug for the sole purpose of extracting corpses from the prison grounds. There now stands a memorial dedicated to those who were executed by the Japanese.
Assuming the abysmal conditions did not claim their lives first, prisoners had the execution chamber to look forward to. The execution chamber has a poplar tree outside of it, known as the “Wailing Poplar.” Prisoners being led to their deaths would touch or hug it on their way into the chamber. Executions were performed after a summary tribunal, whereby the condemned was fitted with a noose around their neck and dropped through the floor. Their body was then ushered out through the aforementioned tunnel and buried in a nearby cemetery.
One room in the museum had all four walls plastered with the intake cards of every prisoner who died within the walls of the prison. I believe (but could be wrong) that these were just the men who had died.
A similar room in the women’s barracks had plaques featuring just the women who had died. Another room told the story of how one woman arrived at Seodaemun Prison while pregnant and gave birth in prison. Her fellow prisoners banded together to support the newborn, taking advantage of secret spaces under the floorboards to hide extra blankets and rations. The placards did not elaborate on what happened to the child, so we can only assume the worst.
In 1945, with Japan having lost World War II, as part of the terms of their surrender Japan was forced to give back everything they had taken from Korea– cultural artifacts and land both. Korea became Korean again, and control of Seodaemun Prison was ceded to Korean authorities.
Seodaemun was under Korean control until 1987. In 1992, it opened to the public for the first time as a museum.
Ever since, high-rise apartments have been raised all around the prison grounds. I could not imagine having this place as the view from our balcony.
Visiting Seodaemun Prison was a very harrowing experience, and certainly helps explain so much of the anti-Japanese sentiment harbored by the older generations of Koreans. We see exhibits like this and it seems like something that happened so long ago, but just like the Holocaust, there are still people alive who survived their experience at Seodaemun, only to have lost everything they hold dear.