The exhibits tiresomely wallow in victimhood. The basement of one building is dedicated to documenting (and recreating with models) the tortures suffered by inmates. One of the exhibits, "Torture--A Tool for Ruling the Colony", states that the methods employed at Seodaemun Prison "can be compared to some of the most atrocious war crimes committed in world history", which I guess is true: compared to the firebombing of Japan or Dresden, or a routine day at Auschwitz, every atrocity perpetrated at Seodaemun Prison is forgettable.
The museum aims to tell an uncomplicated story about the noble, long-suffering Korean people, their fervent desire for sovereignty, the inextinguishable flame that burned in the breasts of their martyrs and the implacable hostility and boundless depravity of their vicious Japanese overlords, but the result doesn't entirely lack nuance. Just mostly. I learned everything I know about the prison from the exhibits yet came away with a greater appreciation for the story that wasn't being told and a reminder that all history's power lies in its framing.
Let me introduce you to the untold story. The prison was built in 1908 and operated by Japanese authorities until 1945. The execution building, a wooden hut containing a gallows, wasn't constructed until 1923. In 1943 the prison housed ~23,000 inmates. All told, in the 22 years between the construction of the gallows and the end of Japanese rule, about 90 prisoners were executed. This was not a death camp.
The story gets more interesting after the war ends. The Japanese quit the scene in 1945, but Seodaemun Prison wasn't decommissioned until 1987. This monument to savagery and national humiliation wasn't immediately torn down by the locals in an explosion of pent-up frustration. For 42 years, more than half its operational history, it was run by and for Koreans. The despotic governments that followed Korean independence used it to incarcerate political dissidents, as had the Japanese. I don't know if they tortured or executed anyone because the exhibits are mute on the details of the prison's life as a tool of internecine oppression.
But enough preamble. Let's have some pictures!
|The front gate. I would've taken a better picture, from further back, but I just wanted to get indoors. So cold!|
|A model of the prison as it was during the colonial period. Most of the buildings modeled no longer stand.|
|Iron Chain, a notorious tool of oppression.|
|This room is wallpapered with the identity cards of patriotic inmates.|
|Looking out from inside.|
|They built a reproduction of the execution building because it's forbidden to photograph the real one. There's a security camera trained on it and a booth for the guard who monitors the feed. Photographers: beware!|
|This enumeration of the basement exhibits is really a downer.|
|Torture--A Tool for Ruling the Colony|
|Japanese torture led to permanent disfigurement? Tell me more, very young girl!|
|A Japanese imperialist devil kicks back and enjoys a cigarette while the halls ring with the agony of patriots.|
|Oh no, not the Water Torture!|
|Oh no, not the Fingernail Torture!|
|Our adorable tour guide explains how these boxes were used to mortify the flesh of Korea's martyrs.|
|Here we have a 7-year old girl explaining how and with what the Korean patriots were beaten.|
|This would be much more torturous for an adult Korean.|
|When I perused the History Hall's website I thought, "I'll be sure not to miss the Corpse Tunnel Exit."|