Seoul’s grandiose palaces and gleaming museums are a vital part of its urban fabric, and all have a key part to play in preserving the rich cultural endowment left to us by previous generations. However, the historical record would not be complete if we ignored those other relics that remind us of darker times … amongst the most powerfully moving of which is a former prison compound standing just beyond the western stretches of the Korean capital’s old fortress walls.
A short walk from Exit 5 of Dongnimmun Station (Line 3) is the imposing main gate and front watch-tower of what was once Seodaemun Prison.
Completed in 1908 during the twilight years of the short-lived Korean Empire, the prison gained much of its present-day notoriety during Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), when thousands of inmates – including scores of pro-independence activists – were hauled inside through that gate, often never to be seen alive again. It is this painful period in Korean history that predominates across the exhibits and signboards erected throughout this depressingly sad corner of Seoul, and understandably so … though one might note that the set-up is rather less vocal about the continued abuses that took place here after liberation, under the nation’s own military dictators.
After passing through the front gate, the first structure I encountered is the oddly charming main building, which houses a museum documenting the history of Seodaemun Prison and the dark deeds perpetrated here.
Having gained a bit of context, I set out on a rambling exploration of the prison grounds. In addition to its key role as a historic landmark and a national shrine to those who lived and died in its shadow, Seodaemun Prison also preserves various interesting features of pre-war correctional architecture that one doesn’t always see in the present age.
Take this building, for example. Separated from the rest of the compound by a lofty stone platform, it was built in 1923 to provide isolated quarters for inmates stricken with leprosy.
This fan-shaped brick enclosure with multiple narrow compartments – a 2011 replica of a structure dating from the 1920s – was designed as an exercise facility where prisoners could engage in outdoor physical activity without being able to converse with each other.
After being allowed into one of the compartments, a prisoner’s line of sight would have been limited to this…
…whereas a guard on the elevated platform at the end (where the two people in the previous image were standing) would have had a clear view of the inmates under his watch.
A recent addition – or rather re-addition – to Seodaemun Prison is a replica of a former kitchen building where rice was prepared for inmates. Originally built in 1923, the structure was demolished in 1988 and reconstructed more than two decades later. It now houses shops and offices.
The largest surviving buildings on the compound are, of course, the cell blocks and administrative structures. Their red brick-faced walls and balanced, aesthetically pleasing architecture would not have been out of place on a sprawling university campus…
…but that illusion was easily shattered as soon as I stepped inside, where I was harshly reminded of what these buildings were for. No classrooms, chalkboards, or chatting pupils here – just empty cells, stout iron bars, various instruments of torture and oppression … and long, silent hallways haunted by the indescribably painful memories of all those souls, named and nameless alike, who were herded into these confined spaces and never tasted freedom again.
For many, there was worse yet in store. Let’s head back outside and make our way towards a lonely brick enclosure in the southern tip of the prison complex, its high walls pierced by a small doorway – one of the very last things that those condemned to die would have seen during the final moments of their lives.
Photography is strictly forbidden inside, as one might well understand given the nature of this place. For within the barrier stands a dark wooden building that served as Seodaemun Prison’s execution chamber.
Spend a few moments here in respectful silence, head bowed, lips forming the whisper of a prayer as your eyes look towards the hangman’s noose inside the building. This is no mere museum exhibit, but sacred ground.
After each sentence was carried out, the mortal remains of the condemned would have been hauled out of the back door…
…and taken away for disposal through a secret passage (discovered in 1992) that leads out of the prison compound.
Whilst the selective emphasis (or lack thereof) on certain sections of the historical record leaves something to be desired, the harrowing ordeal of those who were incarcerated in Seodaemun Prison through the decades is certainly something that deserves to be remembered. The people who lived and died here met their end for different reasons, amongst which of course is the worthy cause of independence … and not far from this former realm of darkness stands another memorial to a different moment in time, when the fire of Korean patriotism in its current form may well have found its first expression.
But that’s a story for another post.
To be continued.