The Dark Side of Seoul

Seodaemun Prison
Seodaemun prison grounds.

Today the weather changed. Rain has given way to light snow, strong winds, and subarctic temperatures. Gusts of up to 60 km/h have rattled windows and knocked over street furniture. After drying my shoes from the previous night’s misadventures I left my hostel for Insadong, intent on grabbing a hearty breakfast, but as the minutes began to drag I only allowed myself time to grab one of those delicious mung bean pancakes and a coffee. I didn’t know it at the time but I was bound for one of the darker parts of Seoul.

In an attempt to catch up on my itinerary I went for a picturesque but completely unremarkable self-guided tour of Unhyeongung 운현궁 (Hanja: 雲峴宮), a fancy household not far from Insadong. If I knew more about Korean culture I might have appreciated it more but I really had no idea what I was looking at.

Unhyeongung: pretty but unremarkable.

While planning my second stop I realized that the indoor museums I had intended to visit were closed on Tuesdays. As such, I took the subway two stops up to Dongnimmun Station, the site of Seodaemun Prison Memorial Hall 서대문 형무소 (Hanja: 西大門刑務所). (Be sure to visit my large format gallery of photos I shot there.)

Seodaemun Prison Gate
Seodaemun prison gate.

To understand the historic significance of Seodaemun Prison you may want to read up on Korea under Japanese rule. In short, the Japanese empire annexed Korea in 1910 after decades of political interference and espionage. The Japanese colonial government inflicted considerable hardship on the Korean people in the decades that followed. Korean names and the Korean language were actively suppressed—which led to the charge that the Japanese engaged in what amounts to cultural genocide. The Korean people fiercely resisted the colonial government but were unable to achieve their own liberation. It wasn’t until the end of World War 2 that Japanese colonial rule ended—and that segued right into the Korean War, which continues to this very day.

Seodaemun Prison Cell Block
Stalking the cell block.

Seodaemun Prison was built in 1908 primarily for “political” prisoners, an umbrella term that encompasses freedom fighters, activists and demonstrators, but also those unfortunate common people who, for instance, failed to take on a Japanese last name. After incarceration prisoners were conscripted into forced labour and subject to unspeakably inhumane conditions. Many prisoners at Seodaemun were tortured and some were even executed, their bodies removed from the prison grounds by way of the “corpse disposal tunnel” behind the execution chamber.

The museum near the entrance to the prison features a number of informative exhibits outlining the history of Seodaemun Prison. Upstairs one will find a memorial chamber filled with countless photographs of many of those who died here. The basement is dedicated to showing off some of the torture devices the Japanese used on Korean prisoners. All around were plaques describing the horrors of prison life in intricate detail.

Seodaemun Prison Memorial Hall
Inside the memorial chamber.
Seodaemun Prison Memorial Hall
Victims of imperial aspiration.

After perusing the museum I braved the wind-whipped prison grounds to stalk through the corridors of one of Seodaemun’s remaining cell blocks. I cannot imagine surviving winter in this place—the cells are completely exposed to the elements and devoid of even the most basic facilities.

Seodaemun Prison Cells
Seodaemun prison cells.
Seodaemun Prison Cell Door
Seodaemun prison cell door.

My final destination was the execution chamber tucked away at the far corner of the prison grounds. I respected the sign prohibiting photography within the chamber itself so I have nothing to show of my time there. Walking in the ghostly footsteps of so many lost souls was a grim, grisly experience, a poignant reminder that for all of its gleaming modernity, Seoul has a very dark history.

Seodaemun Prison Execution Chamber
Outside the execution chamber.

While wandering the museum I was struck by the fact that virtually nothing is said about Seodaemun Prison after colonial rule. The autocratic regimes that ruled South Korea in the decades after liberation from the Japanese continued to use Seodaemun as a political prison until 1987. Nothing is said of this. One would think that only the Japanese committed any atrocities at the site of Seodaemun Prison! I suppose this is merely nationalism in action.

Korean War Memorial
The War Memorial of Korea.
Korean War Machinery
A close up of one of the warplanes outside the memorial.

I visited the War Memorial of Korea on the following day. (Many more photos are available here.) It is curious to think of it is a “memorial”, however—the war isn’t over! As recently as 2010 North Korea sunk a South Korean ship, killing 50. Bizarrely, POWs are still slipping out of prison camps in North Korea—something like 80 have made it over the border to South Korea since 1994. So, a war memorial for a war that is still happening? Interesting.

Korean War Memorial Drills
Sparring outside the War Memorial of Korea.

Members of the Korean army march and drill on the plaza outside the War Memorial. Is this mainly for the tourists? I won’t pretend to know. At any rate, it was interesting to watch the troops spar with bayonets, knives, and short swords. Inside the exhibits were nicely put together but not particularly moving. I was most interested to learn more about South Korea’s involvement in the ill-fated Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly, little was said about how that particular conflict ended.

I suppose I should have completed my dark tour of South Korea with a day trip to the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which, despite its name, is the most heavily militarized border in the world, but I didn’t manage to squeeze it in. Maybe next time.

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