Seodaemun Prison: Korean and Japanese History Intersect

If you are in Seoul some time and the weather is nice, I recommend that you take a look at Seodaemun Prison. Aside from the historical insight you will gain from this trip, there's a nice park nearby and there are a couple of great trails that will give you amazing panoramic views of Seoul once you get to the top.

Seodaemun prison was constructed by the Japanese government in 1908 after Japan had assassinated Korea's Queen Min and made Korea a protectorate. Japan straight out annexed Korea in 1910. The Japanese government used this facility to incarcerate and execute Korean political prisoners until 1945. You could become a political prisoner at that time if you were convicted of using the Korean language in public, since Japan made it illegal to speak Korean in Korea. Another way you could find yourself in prison is if you didn't change your Korean name to a Japanese name. For example, if your family name was Kim or Park, you'd have to choose a Japanese name like Takematsu or Fujii. Of course, there were more classic examples of political activists who wound up in Seodaemun as well. These are people who organized demonstrations or protests, either peaceful or 'violent' as deemed by the Japanese police and governmental authorities. Men and women, children and adults were all equally subject to the laws against subversion as established by the Japanese colonial authorities which held power in Korea until 1945.

You can learn about all of this and see photos and displays if you visit Seodaemun Prison.

However, the prison history center and the tour guide will not tell you that the South Korean government used Seodaemun Prison for its own Korean dissidents and political prisoners until 1987. The history and use of this prison after 1945 are not included in the pamphlet but you can ask Koreans who know about it and they’ll tell you. It was opened as Seodaemun Prison History Hall in 1998.

The Seodaemun Prison History Hall pamphlet provides the following:

Our people still bare {sic} the suffering of forcible occupation by the Japanese. During that period, our self-esteem was dealt a blow, the self-development of our country was suspended, thus marking a painful chapter in our history. At the same time, though, we have a history of struggle for national independency, never compromising or wilting, under the harsh reality of that period, which has made us what we are today. The Seodaemun Prison History Hall is designed to serve as a learning site to record that history. We do hope that all people, especially teenagers who will take charge of our country’s future, can learn and cherish the spirit of patriotism as exhibited by our patriotic ancestors. It is through these efforts that we can overcome that shameful part of our history.

Most Japanese don't know much about this place. You might see some Japanese exchange students here on field trips. The guides tend to spend a lot of time in front of the gallows area and the execution house. I think the Japanese students get a new understanding and probably wonder why they never learned about any of that in their history books back home.

Anyway, if you have a chance, this place is worth a visit. There are some nice restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood if you like Korean barbeque. And there's a great view of Seoul and the Han River if you make the hike afterwards.