Sunday, January 11, 2009

Seodaemun Prison

Not long after the turn of the last century, the Japanese Empire invaded and occupied the Korean peninsula. Although many Koreans shared Japanese ancestry, the invaders were less than surprised to find there was considerable resistance to their presence. It became not just expedient, but necessary, for the occupying force to treat the resistance as if it were a criminal popuation, rather than a political faction.

So the Gyeongseong Gamok was built in 1908, adding 500 cells to a penal infrastructure that consisted of only 300 cells across the whole country. Here, the Japanese colonization forces which ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945 used "enhanced interrogation techniques" on members of the resistance movement. Often, the cruel treatment of prisoners (usally referred to on the interpretive plaques as "patriotic ancestors") only strenghtened their resolve and recruited new members to the cause.

I took a trip to see it, now called Seodaemun Prison History Hall, on Saturday afternoon, planning to meet up with a couple of friends. This is the remaining watchtower and part of the perimeter wall, located at the main entrance. Built in 1923, it originally had a length of 1,161 m, but today only 287 m remains. Designed for 500, it held over 3000 at the height of the resistance movement.

Seodaemun Prison, watchtower, front gate
Here is the main building; in the background, you can see apartments and the peak of Inwangsan. The main dioramas and displays are in this building.

Seodaemun Prison, main building
Many of the facilities are currently receiving a facelift:

Seodaemun Prison, under construction
Below are some artifacts, shackles on the left, face masks, warder's batons and ID papers on the right.

Here are two mock-up solitary cells--one with a mannekin, the other available for photo ops by visitors. Below that are full-size mock-ups depicting water torture and brutal beating, in the rooms where they actually occured:

Seodaemun Prison, mock-up solitary cellSeodaemun Prison, photo op mock solitary cell
Seodaemun Prison, water tortureSeodaemun Prison, beating of patriotic ancestors

Some of the dioramas are animated, and include sound. Watch carefully, and you can see the bamboo shoots being shoved under the victims fingernails.
WARNING: incredibly squeamish persons might find this video mildly unsettling.

Below are photos from Prison Building No. 12, depicting detention cells.

Seodaemun Prison, hallway of Building No. 12Seodaemun Prison, typical cell
Seodaemun Prison, cell door mechanismSeodaemun Prison, cell pass-through, my hand

There is a mock execution room, where you can sit on a wooden stool facing your judges and listen while they sentence you to death. Then, the stool drops about three inches and you scream. At least, this small boy did:

Seodaemun Prison, mock execution
This is the entrance to the execution building; some 400 independence fighters were killed or otherwise died at Seodaemun. Photos were not permitted inside.

Seodaemun Prison, entrance to execution building
This is a cave with a secret exit which was used to carry corpses after execution to the public cemetery outside the prison.

Seodaemun Prison, tunnel to secretly carry executed prisoners to cemetery

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