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Excursion to Seodaemun prison

I’m still thinking about the events one hundred years ago in 1919: the March 1 movement for independence and its aftermath. I am lucky to live close to many places of historical interest, like Seodaemun prison and Severance hospital, which are full of history right on my doorstep.
(It was a bad air day - sometimes it happens. I keep my mask ready just in case.)

Seodaemun prison - view from the north side

In 1992 the Seodaemun prison was turned into a museum, the Seodaemun Prison History Hall, to preserve the history of what took place there during the Japanese occupation and beyond. I have walked by it often, but I never really thought much about what took place there, so I decided it was time to stop in and take a look.
tower on the west wall

Soedaemun prison was built in 1908 as Gyeongseong prison (which was the Japanese name for Seoul). It was built by colonial Japanese authorities for the purpose of controlling the local population. Originally designed to hold 500 people, in the years following the peaceful uprising, the numbers swelled to nearly five times that number, with prisoners housed in overcrowded conditions.
interrogation room

shackles on display

Among those who were imprisoned at that time, one was school-girl Yu Gwan-sun (16), who died in September 1920 from the torture inflicted on her. According to police records discovered in 2011, of the 45000 who were arrested by Japanese authorities in relation to the protests, 7500 died from maltreatment.
photo of Yu Gwan-sun
public domain

One of predecessors, Dr. Frank Schofield of Severance hospital, was an eyewitness to the events. He went around Seoul with his camera, making a record of the demonstrations to send overseas. As a doctor at Severance, he also ended up treating many of the casualties. Apparently he was also able to get access to Seodaemun prison at one point by showing the business card of the chief of police to the guards. This allowed him to go in and see the conditions in the prison firsthand.

Here are a few photos that appeared in a Red Cross pamphlet published in 1920 (probably taken by Schofield).
public domain: Red Cross pamphlet on the March 1st Movement, 1919, p. 42 “Photo of Korean spectators viewing the Korean flag on the Independence Arch.”

public domain: Red Cross pamphlet on the March 1st Movement, 1919, p. 19 “Photo of Japanese policeman taking Korean women to prison.”

public domain: Red Cross pamphlet on the March 1st Movement, 1919, p. 17 “Photo of acts of Japanese barbarism.”

public domain: Red Cross pamphlet on the March 1st Movement, 1919, p. 18 “Photo of funeral for those massacred in movement.”

See also this youtube video on Schofield:

One of my sharpest realizations was how easily the prison was put to re-use after Korea was liberated in 1945. It was given a new name (Seoul prison) and then put into use by the new regime for exactly the same purpose as the old: as a mechanism for controlling the local population. It served this purpose until the end of military rule in 1987.

Independence Gate, located now at Dongnimmun near Seodaemun Prison, was
designed in 1897 to be a symbol of the desire of Koreans for independence.
It still plays that role.

This is a reminder that the situation of Korea today is directly connected with what took place in Korea a hundred years ago. One cannot understand the one without understanding the other.