Seodaemun Prison and English Translations At Their Best.
Out Dongnimmun station on the orange line (line 3) exit number 5 there’s a small sign that reads Seodaemun Prison (서대문형무소역사관) and points you to the left where there is a small path that leads straight up through a plot of trees. Overtaking the plot we found a ticket counter and purchased a ticket for W1,500. Once inside the main gate which does look eerily like it would have fit right in on the Shawshank Redemption set there are signs that lead you around the grounds so that you’re sure to see every nook and cranny. The buildings are very well maintained and considering the prison was in use up until 1987 it’s no wonder. First up was the museum which offers up three exhibition halls worth of information. The translations offered up a few chuckles in this semi-serious situation as, as often happens in Korea, words that make perfect sense for the situation were put into sentences that could have been written by a fifth grader making the whole situation inappropriately jocose. At the same time the translations didn’t cover everything so while they highlighted the topics that we were viewing pictures of they didn’t go into the same detail that the Korean plaques were offering. This, as well, offered up a chance for us to try and figure out what things were for and again inappropriately funny remarks abounded.
Exiting the museum signs led us to the central prison building and a second prison building still on the grounds. Allowing the more serious side of the place to take over these two buildings showed just how empty and dank a place can be. The small doors swing open and you can go inside. Some are more spacious for groups of people and signs let you know that at one point they were filled to more than capacity and people were dying of heat stroke in the summer and freezing to death in the winter. Some are quite small for the use of only one dissident. Sounds of tapping so that you can understand how those once here communicated echo.
Up next was the engineering work building explaining that in between the torture episodes inmates were expected to work and the Japanese exploited the situation to produce various products. Seodaemun prison inmates were expected to produce bricks as well as the uniforms for their own prison and others. Finally around the bend the execution building where they have the only sign in the place that warns you from taking pictures. Just beyond the very small execution building is the corpse removal exit built so that the Japanese could try to conceal the executions by disposing of the bodies through a secret passage. At this point, on the coldest day of the week, we were set to leave and contemplated what we’d just seen.
The prison did allow a blunt reminder as to why Korean students still write stories about the Japanese occupation and wanting to blow them up as clearly they’ve heard some horrific stories from their parents and grand parents and may have even come here to see the Japanese mannequins torturing the Korean patriot mannequins. If you have an afternoon available it’s not a bad place to walk around though it’s not the peaceful atmosphere of one of the palaces it is a part of Korean history which many Koreans still discuss often.
서대문구 현저동 101
101 Hyunjeo-dong Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, Korea
Buses: 99, 171, 470, 471, 601, 701, 702A, 702B, 703, 704, 705, 706, 710, 720, 750A, 750B, 752, N37, 7019, 7021, 7024, 7025, 7737
Subway: Dongnimmun Subway Station exit 5. Turn left out of the station and walk through a small thicket of trees and bushes and you’ll come to the prison.
March – October: 9:30AM – 6:00PM; November – February: 9:30AM – 5:00PM
(last admission is 30 minutes prior to closing)
Closed on January 1st, Seollal, Chuseok and every Monday. If a holiday falls on Monday, the museum is closed on the following Tuesday.
Amenities: Wheelchair rental, bathrooms, parking (parking fee is W1,000), English and Japanese tour guides are available but must be reserved one week in advance by calling 82-360-8586
Website: Seodaemun Prison History Hall