Unveiling Seodaemun Prison: Unforgettable Horrors of South Korea’s Past

Seodaemun Prison (서대문형무소) was a prison in Seoul, South Korea, which has now been converted into a museum.

The Seodaemun Prison History Hall is a museum and former prison located in Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Construction of the prison began in 1907, and it was officially opened on October 21, 1908, under the name Gyeongseong Gamok. During the early years of the Japanese colonial period, it was referred to as Keijo Prison (Keijō Kangoku in Japanese, which is the Japanese pronunciation of Gyeongseong Gamok). In 1923, its name was changed to Seodaemun Prison, and it underwent several other name changes in later years.

Unveiling Seodaemun Prison: Unforgettable Horrors of South Korea’s Past

Seodaemun Prison played a significant role during the Japanese colonial period as a place of imprisonment for Korean liberation activists. Originally designed to accommodate around 500 inmates, it had separate facilities for women and young girls. In 1911, one notable figure, Kim Koo, was imprisoned there. He was an influential leader in the Korean liberation movement. Following the March 1st Movement in 1919, the prison experienced a drastic increase in the number of inmates. Approximately three thousand liberation activists were imprisoned, and by the time the colonization ended in 1945, there were 2,980 prisoners. Tragically, among those imprisoned after the March 1st Movement was Ryu Gwansun, who died as a result of torture inflicted upon her.

After Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945, marking the end of the colonial era, the prison was repurposed by the South Korean government and underwent various name changes, such as Seoul Prison until 1961, Seoul Correctional Institute until 1967, and Seoul Detention Center until its closure in 1987. It was eventually replaced by a facility in Uiwang City, Gyeonggi Province.

In 1992, the site was established as the Seodaemun Prison History Hall within Seodaemun Independence Park. Seven out of the original fifteen buildings of the prison complex were preserved as historical monuments. The History Hall serves as a memorial to all those who were imprisoned during the Japanese colonial period.

During a visit to Seodaemun in August 2015, former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama knelt in front of a memorial stone as a gesture of apology for Japanese war crimes committed during World War II.

Museum 

When Seodaemun Prison closed in 1987, it consisted of fifteen buildings. However, only seven of these buildings have been fully restored. On February 27, 1988, three prison buildings and the execution building were designated as Historic Site Number 324. In 1995, the decision was made to transform the site into a museum. Managed by the district of Seodaemun-gu, the museum officially opened its doors in 1998. It serves as a place of remembrance for Korean resistance fighters who sacrificed their lives during Japanese colonization.

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In 2001, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Seodaemun Prison Museum and expressed his apology for the suffering inflicted on the Korean people during the colonial period.

The museum showcases various reconstructions of the prison during the Japanese colonization era, including cells, depictions of prison life, torture rooms, watchtowers, and the execution site. It also features a monument paying tribute to the martyrs, permanent exhibitions on the prison’s history, educational rooms, a video room, an exhibition hall for hosting events, and a library.

Seodaemun Prison is situated within Seodaemun Independence Park (Seodaemun Dokrip Gongwon), near Independence Gate (Dongnimmun) and Dongnimmun subway station, located in the Seodaemun-gu Ward.

Exhibition Hall 1F

Various information on the Seodaemun Prison History Hall can be looked up and read.

Information Search Room
Prison History Room

Seodaemun Prison is a place that documents the transformations it underwent throughout history. It highlights the records of the violent colonial rule imposed by the Japanese Imperialists, as well as the oppressive actions against individuals involved in the democratic movement during the period of dictatorship after liberation. The museum showcases a video presentation that includes relevant records, providing a visual representation of the historical events and the experiences of those who were affected. Visitors can gain a deeper understanding of the atrocities committed during the colonial era and the subsequent struggles for democracy in South Korea.

Prison History Room
Theater

The 80 years of history from 1908 to 1987 and its implications in Seodaemun Prison are shown in the video.
· Viewing time : Every hour and every 30 minutes.
· Length : 7 minutes

Theater

Exhibition Hall 2F

National Resistance Room Ⅰ

This room exhibits the status of the independence movement and the oppression of Japanese Imperialists from the end of the Daehan Empire to 1919 in relation to Seodaemun Prison.

National Resistance Room Ⅰ
National Resistance Room Ⅱ

This is a space of reminiscence to remember independence activists by exhibiting the records of their imprisonment.

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National Resistance Room Ⅱ
National Resistance Room Ⅲ

This is a place to exhibit the independent movement from the March 1 Independent Movement in 1919 to liberation in 1945 in relation to the Seodaemun Prison, and it has data on independent activists who were imprisoned in Seodaemun Prison.

National Resistance Room Ⅲ

Exhibition Hall B1

Underground Torture Room

This is the space for interrogation located under of the Security Division Hall during colonialism by Japanese Imperialists. It exhibits the real scenes of various tortures done in the process of interrogating independent activists, and it has the voice testimony of independent activists who survived to show the reality of oppressive colonial ruling.

Underground Torture Room
Shadow Image Experiment

The face of visitors is projected in the video in the shape of a shadow to make him to be a person in the independent movement with this special video to experience the independent movement then.

Shadow Image Experiment
Central Prison Building

This is the building that monitored and controlled entire facilities by connecting to Prison Building No. 10, 11 and 12.

Central Prison Building
Office of Warder

This space has displayed the status of operation of Seodaemun Prison and reproduced and exhibited the warders.

Office of Warder
Life Style in the Prison

This space displays the scenes of meal times, clothing and the everyday living of prisoners and their records in imprisonment.

Life Style in the Prison
Prison Building

This is the original appearance of the prison building where independent activists and democratic movement activists were actually placed.

Prison Building
Prison Building No. 12

It has 3 single cells arranged within the facility and it has reproduced and exhibited encrypted communication for independent activists in ‘Wall Tapping Communication’, ‘Independent Movement in the Cell’ and others.

Prison Building No. 12
Prison Building No. 11

This space exhibits the cell structure and visitors may personally enter into the cell to experience the life of imprisonment.

Engineering Work Building

– This is the plant building where inmates labored in the Prison.

Engineering Work Building
Video of Laboring

This place shows a video of the fact that the Japanese Imperialists exploited the labor force of inmates to produce various goods and military supplies.

Video of Laboring
Labor Exhibition

This is the place that exhibits various types of labor, its record and relevant relics from the Prison during the Forcible Ruling Era by the Japanese Imperialists.

Labor Exhibition
Special Exhibition of Independent Activists of the Month

The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs selects an independent activist of the Month each month and runs this exhibit all year long.

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Special Exhibition of Independent Activists of the Month
Monument

· Work name : Pot with the Soul of Nation
· Artist : Lim Seung-O (2010)
This work was produced to remember and reminisce about the souls of those independent activists who sacrificed their lives while imprisoned in Seodaemun Prison. It has the projected names of those independent activists inside.

Monument
Execution Building

This is the building for executions. Numerous independent activists and democratic movement activists were sent to this place in the name of execution.

Execution Building
Corpse Removal Exit

After executing the independent activists by the Japanese Imperialists, they tried to conceal such acts through disposing of the corpse outside through this secret passage.

Corpse Removal Exit
Yoo, Kwan-sun Underground Cell

This is the building where women independent activists were held. Underground there is a single cell and it is on the site where the Patriotic Martyr Yoo, Kwan-sun died from fierce torture as she resisted against the Japanese Imperialists.

Yoo, Kwan-sun Underground Cell
Cook House

– This is the building where food was prepared for the inmates within the Prison and was restored in 2010.

Cook House
Exhibition of Cook House Relics

This is the place to conserve and exhibit the record and data of the boiler room as discovered at the time of restoring the kitchen and it exhibits various data and relics related to Cook House then.

Getting there

In Korean  : 서대문형무소역사관 ( seodaemun hyeongmuso yeoksagwan )
Address  : 251, Tongil-ro, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul
Website  : Seodaemun Prison History Hall
Hours  : 9:30 am – 6 pm from March to October; 9.30 a.m. – 5 p.m. from November to February. Count 1h30 of visit.
Closing days  : every Monday. Also on January 1 , the day of Seollal and Chuseok. If a public holiday falls on a Monday, the museum is closed on Tuesday.
Prices : adults, 3,000 won (approx. 2.40 USD); teenagers between 13 and 18 years old, 1500 won (approx. 1.20 USD); children between 7 and 12 years old, 1000 won (approx. 80 cents). Free for children under 6 years old.
Transport  : Line 3, Dongnimmum station , exit No. 5.

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Mohamed SAKHRI
Mohamed SAKHRI

I am Mohamed SAKHRI, the creator and editor-in-chief of this blog, 'Discover the World – The Blog for Curious Travelers.' Join me as we embark on a journey around the world, uncovering beautiful places, diverse cultures, and captivating stories. Additionally, we will delve into mysterious and, at times, even bizarre destinations.

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