Seodaemun Prison was originally built in 1907 and opened in 1908 to imprison Korean independence fighters who resisted the Japanese colonization. Originally called Gyeongseong Prison, at its height held more than 2,000 prisoners when it was only meant to house 500. At the time even the capability to house 500 inmates made this a huge prison as the entire capacity of all of the prisons across the country at the time only totaled 300. Inmates not only died from torture and starvation but because of the cramped space and lack of basic human necessities died of heat stroke in the summers and froze to death in the winters.
After purchasing a ticket, visitors follow signs throughout the eerily quiet complex that is unsettlingly beautiful with the red brick against the bright blue skies that Seoul often enjoys. The first building is the museum itself which offers three floors of information. The first floor is “A Place of Reverence” to learn more about the prison and its history. Visitors then follow the signs up to the second floor which is “A Place of History” with one room that might be the darkest of all, three walls covered from top to bottom with photographs of those that died here and finally the signs lead into the basement where the torture scenes are depicted. Videos and lifelike mannequins portray what the imprisoned went through and though the English subtitles and translations are lacking they are unneeded with these representations.
After this in depth look at the grounds and the history, arrows lead visitors into the prison halls. The doors swing open and some rooms house mannequins to allow visitors to see how they communicated by knocking on the walls and how they got through the daily struggles housed here. The dimly lit dank feeling of the prison gives visitors an overwhelming feeling of loss and hopelessness especially when one tries to picture how 2000 activists could possibly be housed here at one time. After the prison halls have been visited, the arrows lead to the execution chamber and a small tunnel. The dead bodies were removed through this tunnel so that the executions could be concealed.
In 1987 part of the prison was moved to Uiwang, Gyeonggi-do but the 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th prison halls as well as the leper house and the execution building were left in the area because of their historical significance. The area around the prison became a park in 1988 and monuments were relocated and erected and in 1992 the block became known as Seodaemun Independence Park. The park and prison are worth a visit to learn more about the history between Korea and Japan and the Korean fighting spirit.
Directions: 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.
Hours: 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