Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Independence Park

2010 marks the 100th anniversary of Japan’s forced annexation of Korea. And every year, March 1st is the anniversary of the movement that saw millions of Koreans marching to protest Japan’s brutal colonial rule.

An imposing red brick building housing the Seodaemun Prison history hall. A hexagonal turret in the center of the frame, the foreground is a road on a bright sunny day.

To honor the sacrifices of Korea’s martyrs, in 1992, Seoul City opened the Seodaemun Independence Park (서대문독립공원). And recently, to better serve its 800,000 annual visitors, the park reopened in October 2009 after undergoing significant renovations.

One of the most notable improvements is the ability to freely walk beneath the Dongnimmun Gate (독립문), access that was restricted for 112 years. The gate is an important symbol of Korea’s independent spirit.

A large stone archway with two concrete pillars in front of it, in the background is modern Seoul, with a blue sky in bright sunlight.
Photo from here.

During the Joseon Dynasty, Korea was sovereign, but its international affairs were dominated by China. Chinese envoys were greeted at Yeongeunmun (영은문), a tribute gate constructed on the road between Seoul and Beijing.

But in 1896, following China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War, Koreans asserted their full independence by destroying the gate and building a 14-meter high independence monument.

A close up of a statue of an independence activist, his right arm up holding a rolled up paper. The background is blue sky and bright sunshine.
Photo from here.

Chief among those activists was Dr. Seo Jae-pil (서재필), who published Korea’s first independent newspaper.

After constructing Dongnimmun, Seo’s Independence Society used the former tribute hall to promote Korean self-determination and civil rights. Not surprisingly, it was torn down by Japanese imperialists.

A vertical image with the Seodaemun prison building in the background. Red brick and imposing with small dark windows. In the foreground is dried grass and a brick pathway. One of the bricks in the path has a symbol carved into it.
Photo from here.

But reconstructed in 1996, today it enshrines tablets inscribed with the names of 3,000 Koreans who died for the cause of national independence.

Seodaemun Independence Park’s highlight is no doubt the Seodaemun Prison History Hall (서대문형소 역사관). Opened in 1908 in the years just prior to Japanese annexation of Korea, the complex imprisoned Korean independence activists.

Even after independence, the prison was used by Korea’s military regimes to detain and torture dissidents.

Two side by side images of the inside of Seodaemun Prison. On the left is a hallway lined with metal prison doors. On the left are four people sitting cross legged on a wooden floor with a scroll in between them. Behind them are two barred windows and a white wall.
Photo from here.

Today, seven of the Seodaemun Prison History Hall complex’s 15 original buildings have been restored, including three prison halls. Walking down its corridors, the cells depict what life was like for the over 2,000 inmates who filled cramped cells built for just 500.

The prisoners were forced to sleep in rotation due to inadequate space, and they endured poor ventilation and sanitary conditions, as well as torture and chronic starvation.

A model of a man sitting in a chair with his legs on a wooden desk. To the left of him is an old fashioned wooden telephone, in the background is a concrete floor and white walls.
Photo from here.

For me, the tour’s very real emotional impact is compromised by “experience” exhibits that make Japanese torturers sound more like evil cartoons than actual people.

Furthermore, one exhibit includes a sign forbidding children and pregnant women from hearing a man’s death sentence.

An imposing brick structure at Seodaemun prison. The square building is red brick, with white discoloration. In the foreground is a clay courtyard with a low brick wall, and in the background is blue sky and trees on a bright sunny day.
Photo from here.

There is, however, plenty of sober and somber reminders at the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Independence Park. The most unsettling is located along the prison’s back wall.

Although taking photos is prohibited, inside a brick perimeter is the actual execution building. Here, independence patriots were murdered and their corpses were whisked away through a secret tunnel.

Two poplar trees straddle the wall.

On the outside one grew tall.

On the inside, it remains small and weak, reportedly stunted by the weight of the terrible deeds committed there.

Pictured through glass, a painting of a person in white robes, with hands clenched around a Korean flag.
Photo from here.

Walking on the grounds of the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Independence Park, the contrast of the red bricks and blue sky make for a beautiful, yet solemn setting.

As you walk, you may notice bricks stamped with the Chinese character “gyeong,” the first character of Seoul’s name under Japanese rule. Yet despite the colonizer’s attempts to carve its designs into every single brick, those efforts were no match for the Korean people’s independent spirit.

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About Matt Kelley

Matt Kelly is native of the US Pacific Northwest and is half-Korean by ethnicity. He lived in Korea for five years and has written hundreds of travel guides for Wallpaper, TimeOut, the Boston Globe and Seoul Magazine and was a host for several different variety shows on Korean radio and television.

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