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Seoul: Seodaemun Prison Museum

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We visited the Seodaemun Prison Museum one cold, drizzling morning. This was my second visit to the museum – the first trip was in 2007, also on a cold, drizzling morning – which was established to remember the Korean patriots who died in their fight for Independence against the Japanese colonial masters.

I remember feeling slight discomfort at the sight of the museum exhibits depicting torture chambers. Unlike the first visit, I didn’t get the chills this time, probably because the museum was crowded with hoards of school children on an excursion, and my imagination was too distracted by their chattering to feel creeped-out by the exhibits.

Wandering around the grounds of the prison museum, I was so taken with the red-bricked architecture of the compound that it was hard to imagine that this place was Korea’s largest Japanese-run prison after the country was colonised in 1910, housing thousands of prisoners who were imprisoned for participating in anti-imperialist activities.  The entire prison museum, comprising several buildings, is a fraction of the actual size of the prison.

The overcast sky cast a mistiness over the place, adding a surreal and sorrowful feel to the place.

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^ This is the first building that we visited. It houses the gory exhibits of torture chambers that I mentioned earlier, as well as visual displays explaining the background of the period of time in Korean history when the Joseon dynasty ended and the Japanese occupied the country, and how the Korean people fought to liberate their country.  We could understand what was in the visual displays as they come withEnglish explanations.

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^ Beautiful penmanship by a prisoner.

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These buildings with a huge banner of South Korea hung over its walls house former prison cells.

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The museum put up exhibits outside the cells of several prisoners, showing photographs of them when they were young, when they got married, with their families and their grown up children. Some have passed away while others are still alive to tell people stories of their past lives and hardships as activists.

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Photobucket ^ This is known as the ‘Wailing Poplar Tree’, outside the prison’s execution chambers. It was said that wailing prisoners grabbed this tree while walking to the execution chambers.

Besides the Korean palaces and the National Folk Museum, the prison museum is another place that I recommend people visit in Seoul, if one is interested in the country’s tulmultous history in the last 100 hundred years.

I would visit it again – perhaps not the exhibit halls – but to wander around the compound, trying to imagine the lives of thousands of prisoners who have suffered and died in the grounds that I was standing on.  It is a humble, sombre and depressing place to be in, but being there makes me feel grateful that I live in peace times, in a country that is free from oppression and civil unrest.

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