Monday, November 29, 2010

A Visit to Seodaemun Prison

A friend and I recently visited Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul and I would recommend it to anyone interested in history, prisons, or appreciating Korea.

In brief, the prison was built in 1908 and used during the Japanese rule of Korea to house anti-colonial activists. After the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, the prison was used by the South Korean government until 1987. It was constructed to accommodate around 500 people, but actually housed close to 3,000 prisoners at the height of civil disobedience. In 1992, the site was dedicated as the Seodaemun Prison History Hall. For more historical information, click on the link above.

Prisoners at Seodaemun were forced to work, they were tortured, and many of them were executed. I was reminded of visits to Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and other former German concentration camps where one can't help but imagine the suffering that occurred in the very cells you walk by. Like many of the concentration camps, the execution building still stands at Seodaemun and remains a reminder of the prison's original purpose. The execution building itself was off limits to photographs, although you'll find many on the web. I took this shot from outside the wall that now blocks the small wood-sided execution building from plain view (you see the wall to the left of the poplar tree).

A plaque before the entrance to the execution building states that this poplar tree "was planted in 1923 at the time when the execution building was constructed. It was said that patriots in the course of being dragged to the execution hall grabbed this tree and wailed with deep resentment for their unachieved independence." The tree is therefore named the Wailing Poplar.

Seodaemun offers something of an interactive approach that I have never experienced at another historical prison exhibit. In the bottom floor of the main exhibit, visitors can see life-like representations of what cells, prisoners and even torture looked like. They can also become a Korean revolutionary and watch themselves be arrested. I took the opportunity to participate.

Smiling me in a crowd of fellow Koreans hollering "대한 독립 만세!" ( [daehan dokrib mansae] Hooray for Independence!)
And before you know it I've gotten myself arrested.
Faceless guards escort me to Seodaemun.
My smiling profile is interrogated. But I don't budge!
This is me being tortured--I believe with scalding hot water poured down my throat. This was disturbing to see and it took me a bit of time to identify what was so disturbing about it: One-seeing myself in a position to be tortured was simply uncomfortable. I think few people really want to see this. Two-it is a fun and interactive museum setting. School kids come through, have their likenesses imprinted on the screen and watch themselves be Korean nationalists, giggling all the way. I want to know that at the end of the day, they realize what they are giggling at. Three-I can't forget that this is someone's reality in this world. Right now.

After much thought, I have concluded that the activity is as realistic as it can be, and that should make people uncomfortable.
Here I am escorted to my cell.
And in my spacious cell I continue my hollering for freedom: "대한 독립 만세!" It should be noted that Seodaemun has solitary cells that were much smaller than the one seen here, and I imagine I was not alone in this room.

The Seodaemun Prison History Hall exhibit left me feeling thankful that I could say "that was then..." and made me question how much I would be able to endure for my own beliefs and values. But it also reminded me that "this is now" in some parts of the world. It makes one consider the differences one feels when they visit Alcatraz--with its clean and pristine lines of cells, beautiful west coast Pacific views, and fantastic jail break stories--and when they visit the camps and prisons where the execution room is still to be seen, where we are given the numbers of lives that suffered torture, starvation, and death.

It leaves me wondering if we will someday tour other modern day prisons in this fashion. More pictures of Seodaemun follow.
This room memorializes Seodaemun prisoners. Each 3X5 card is a prisoner intake card with photo and personal information. There are thousands here.
Buildings were built with these bricks, which were made by prisoners. The mark represents Seodaemun prison bricks. Textiles and prison uniforms were also made in Seodaemun and shipped to other prisons throughout the country.
A view so often seen in Seoul--the old, the new, and the natural. The red brick buildings are century-old Seodaemun prison buildings, while the white buildings in the background are modern apartment buildings. In the far background a mountain outcropping can be seen, which has surely been here longer than everything else.

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