Torturous History at Seodaemun Prison

The Seodaemun Prison in Seoul was used to intern Korean patriots during the Japanese occupation. Until the Liberation of Korea in August 1945, it was known as a clandestine Mecca for the anti-Japanese resistance fighters, where they were tortured and executed their prisoners.

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The Seodaemun Prison History Hall opened in November 1998 in Seodaemun Independence Park to commemorate the patriots who sacrificed their lives in the fight for Korean independence during the Japanese occupation. The whole tour of the Seodaemun Prison History Hall takes about one and a half hours. It consists of a historic exhibition hall, a central prison, twelve jail cells, Hansen hospital, the patriot memorial, an execution room, a tunnel through which corpses were carried, a watchtower, and a basement jail cell where a female patriot was tortured and killed.

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Unlike most tourist attractions in Seoul, Seodaemun Prison is dark – really dark! This is a real place of torture, and in many ways not too dissimilar to places like Cheong Ek in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when you think of the kinds of atrocities and torturous activity that went on here. Tours are available of the prison, but I found most tourists to be in a very sombre mood when visiting. It’s not somewhere to bring your kids!

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We saw various torture devices in the Seodaemun Prison Museum, including narrow vertical coffin boxes, where prisoners would be held captive for potentially an infinite amount of time. They could not move inside these boxes, so it must have been pure torture to suffer that kind of claustrophobic detention. We also saw smaller wooden boxes, which had spikes inside. No surprises to guess what this was for. The prisoners would have been trapped inside the boxes with the apparatus of the wooden box able to close in on whoever was inside, thus impaling them gently on the spikes. This was not designed to kill prisoners, but rather weaken them – and torture them – into revealing information to the enemy.

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A secret exit is located at the back of the prison, close to where the executions were carried out. It was made by the Japanese to carry corpses to the public cemetery outside the prison after the executions had taken place. The Japanese covered the tunnel when they withdrew. There are also underground cells at Seodaemun Prison that were designed to torture female prisoners who had fought for Korean independence. Yu Gwansun, an 18 year old high school girl, died of starvation and suffered serious injuries after being tortured.

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