Seodaemun Prison in north central Seoul was opened by the Japanese in 1908 to detain Korean anti-imperial activists and others found undesirable by the occupying Japanese forces. (Japanese control of Korea was underway by this time, but the official occupation began in 1910 and ended with the fall of Imperial Japan in 1945 at the end of World War II.)
About half of the original structures still stand today as they undergo heavy restoration. Above is one of the common cells.
Outside the main gate and watchtower.
On a sunny afternoon it’s easy to forget the many horrible things that happened here. The white building on the right was the main guard office, now a museum. The red brick buildings were two of the prison blocks, now covered in scaffolding as the whole complex gets renovated as an interpretive history center.
The stamped bricks that make up the pathways were made on-site by prison labor. Looking around the grounds and realizing how many of them there are, it’s hard not to be chilled by what the inmates had to suffer.
These underground cells were for female prisoners. They would have received no natural light back when they were in use. Here’s one of the “regular,” above-ground cells like Number 15 above:
All of the cells were open to the air, making freezing temperatures common in the winter and disease common in the summer months.
Over on a corner of the grounds is the execution chamber:
The tree on the left is known as “The Wailing Poplar,” a tree that many condemned would touch or hug as they were lead to their death. The door on the right leads to a small wooden building that served as the execution theater (no pictures allowed). A curtain was pulled aside where the condemned was seated with a noose around his or her neck. A tribunal sat at a wooden table across from the curtain to read the execution order. The condemned fell into a small basement for collection and removal.
Here’s the tunnel, only about 20 meters of which is open today, where the bodies were removed to a nearby cemetery on the other side of the walls:
The whole experience of Seodaemun Prison is understandably powerful, so much so that many of the exhibitions within the museum seem a bit overdone. The buildings speak for themselves as far as I’m concerned. That said, it’s hard to fathom how many decades of suffering went on here at the hands of the Japanese occupiers.
What’s also disturbing is that after the defeat and removal of the Japanese authorities in 1945, the prison stayed in business under despotic right-wing South Korean presidents until the facility was shut down in 1987. Anti-communist fervor was high, and the literature and exhibits you see today don’t mention the history of the institution during the 40 years following the fall of Japan.