Seodaemun Prison History Hall is a museum and former prison in 251 Unification Road/Tongillo, Hyeonjeo-dong 101-beonji, Seoul Seodaemun-gu, South Korea. It was constructed beginning in 1907, during the reign of Emperor Sunjong-Yunghui of Korean Empire. The prison was opened on October 21, 1908, under the name Gyeongseong Gamok/경성감옥/京城監獄. Its name was changed to Seodaemun Prison in 1923.
There are four names to indicate this place such as:
- Seodaemun Hyeongmuso/서대문형무소/西大門刑務所
- Seodaemun Gamok/서대문감옥/西大門監獄
- Seodaemun Guchiso/서대문구치소/西大門拘置所
- Gu-Seoul Guchiso/구서울구치소/舊서울拘置所 (Old Seoul Prison Complex)
The prison was used during the Colonial period to house anti-colonial activists, and could accommodate around 500 people. After the colonial era ended in 1945, the prison was used by the South Korean government until 1987, when it was replaced by a facility in Uiwang City, Gyeonggi Province. In 1992, the site was dedicated as the Seodaemun Prison History Hall, part of Independence Park of Seodaemun. Seven of the prison complex's original fifteen buildings are preserved as historical monuments.
The main hall has three floors of exhibitions, including lifelike re-creations of torture scenes in the nightmarish interrogation cells in the basement. Photographs of the prison and prison conditions are on view along with video footage. Not everything is translated into English.
Visitors can look around and go inside the original prison cell blocks where the independence fighters were held. Built to house 500 prisoners, up to 3500 were packed inside during the height of the anti-Japanese protests in 1919. There was no heating and the food was just rice, barley and beans.
The factories where prisoners were forced to make bricks and military uniforms have gone, but some of the red prison-made bricks with Chinese characters stamped on them have been used to make the pavements.
In another building you can experience what the prisoners suffered. Firstly the torture scenes – look at the spikes in the box which prisoners were put inside; next the court finds you guilty, and you sit down on the execution chair to be hanged – be warned: the chair drops down!
An outdoor memorial lists the names of 90 Koreans known to have died in the prison, but around 300 to 600 nameless others died here from torture, execution, malnutrition and disease.
The most famous victim was Yu Gwan-sun, an 18-year-old Ewha high school student (nowadays Ewha Womans University), who was tortured to death in 1920. The female prisoners were kept in underground cells.
The execution building (1923) is chilling. Behind it is a 200m tunnel to a hillside cemetery where the bodies were buried.