[personal profile] niori_1709
I'm a very, very organized person. I plan most things down to the tiny details, especially when it comes to any sort of writing. My travel guides are the same. I have the order already planned, so I could tell you exactly what I'll be covering a year from now. I can go off schedule if I need/want to, but I usually try to stick to it. Yet every once and awhile, something comes up that you see a reason to go off script. The world gives you a perfect opening to a topic, and you have to take it. This is one of those times. I don't know if it's reached the Canadian media, but Korea has been in the news lately, and not for a good reason. There have been massive protests in Seoul, with huge crowds from a number of diverse groups protesting in Seoul (and being put down with a great degree of violence). The people are angry for a number of reasons, many of which are just too extensive to put into one travel guide. One of those reasons is the government imposing a new, universal textbook to be used in all Korean schools. While I haven't read the book myself, most of the teachers and educational professionals have panned it, saying it downplays the terrible things that happened during the military dictatorship (that went until the 80s), villainized the pro-democracy movement, and made a lot of excuses for the politicians who were quite pro-Japanese. The government has claimed the historical revision is because the current way of teaching doesn't make Korean students proud of Korea/their history (always a red flag), and while reading/watching the news of all this, I was reminded of a place that I visited in Seoul. While it's not as dramatic a place as protests at city hall, there's a remnant of the history they're talking about there. This is the perfect time to talk about it...so I give you the Seodaemun Prison History Hall and Independence Park.

The name of the place and the connotations that go with the word 'prison' should already give you a feeling of what this place is going to be about. Prisons are not fun places, are places of pain and suffering. They're a place of punishment, deserved or not. In its heyday, Seodaemun Prison was all of that, and more. This was the place that the Japanese, and then the military dictatorship, brought those Koreans who protested against them. From full on freedom fighter to underground peaceful protestors, were to sent to this prison. Many of them didn't come out again, at least not alive, and they suffered far too much before that even happened. By going in with this introduction, I'm making a warning that this is not going to be a light hearted travel guide. It's going to be dark and brutal, and that's with me toning down the information. This was a violent and horrific place, and I'd be doing a disservice to all that suffered there if I didn't write it that way. As TV always says, viewer discretion is advised. I never thought I'd ever have to do this for a travel guide, but I'm going to say trigger warning, just to be safe.

Saodaemun Japanese Prison was built by the Japanese in 1907 to imprison anyone who protested against colonial rule. It's not an old place, not in the context of Korea, but it's interesting to note that is was built before Japan offically took over the country. The Joseon Dynasty and Korean independance ended in 1910. You see that coming now, and I can't imagine how terrible it must have been for the people of the time, because how could you not see the writing on the wall? If the building and use of this prison wasn't a look into the near future, I don't know what would be. After Korean Independance was finally acheived, the prison wasn't just left to be abandoned. Instead, the military dictatorship that was given control of the country took it over, and used it in the exact same way as the Japanese did. I can't decide which one is worst- fighting to free your country and being imprisoned for it, or having to fight for deomcracy in a country you have supposedly already freed? The first thing I noticed when I got to the prison museum was how nice it was. I know that sounds so strange to say, but it really is the truth. I mean, obviously it's very well taken care of. It's a museum after all, so of course it's going to be well maintained. That's not the nice I'm talking about. The place itself, especially the buildings, are lovely buildings. They're very large, and a number of the main ones have a shape that remind me of barns (the tall walls with the slightly curved, pointed roof). They're made of red brick, and that's where the visual appeal comes from. The red colour of the brick is perfect. It's the bricks you see in those clich├ęd, picture perfect versions they always show when brick buildings are shown. I really like red brick, so the outside of the buildings really appealed to me in an aesthetic sense. Once you go inside and walk through the halls and learn what happened there, it makes that appeal all the more stomach turning. There's such a lovely looking area, and it housed some of the worst horrors imaginable. It's not a good feeling to have, and it made the horror all that more poignant.

The first building you come to, right near the entrance to the space (as a prison, it should come as no surprise that all the buildings are surrounded by a huge brick wall, complete with dozens of tall, octagonal shaped guard towers. Those watch towers were very, very imposing, and I cannot imagine looking at them and thinking 'can I run? Will they catch me?'. It was a shiver inducing thought, one that I didn't contemplate very long), is the exhibition hall. It's inside the building that held the notorious Intelligence Department. I really probably don't have to tell you just why that Intelligence Department is notorious, and what it was famous -terrifying- for. Intelligence gathering means one thing, and that is getting answers by any means necessary. Those means are never pleasant ones, and usually end in the most brutal torture possible. This place is no exception. This was the building to be feared, even more than the prison housing. There's only one place I'd argue is worse, and even that can be debated. It all comes down to which is worse for each person- living and suffering or ending it all with death. The museum doesn't let you forget that either.

When the prison was built, an underground interrogation space was created. It was sheer concrete, empty of any sort of colour or decoration. It's dark and cool, and there's nothing there to make it any less creepy. That's the way it was supposed to be- this was a floor you were led into and knew what was coming. A basement of concrete? Fewer people can hear you scream. Out of sight, out of mind? No one to save you. This created the atmosphere, and psychological torture can be just as breaking as physical. The museum doesn't let you get away with just reading/hearing about this reality, they make you see it as well. Not with actors, of course, but they set the scenes with mannequins and shadows. They have scenes set up in the small integration rooms, of Japanese soldiers and a Korean prisoner, and some of them are horrific. Some are just scenes of soldiers demanding answers, but others show straight up torture. This is the point where I once again tell you to stop reading if semi-graphic depictions of torture are going to bother you. Seriously, this is a warning. A version of water boarding, pieces of wood shoved underneath fingernails, pulling nails off completely, beatings, flogging...they all happened in these little rooms. People were sat/tied down and made to feel pain. This place would have echoed with screams and confessions that probably weren't real. Innocent or guilty, it didn't matter. These people...how can you even really explain it in a way that encompasses it all? I could use a million words to talk about their suffering, and it'll never be enough to describe it, to make us understand. I'm not even close to being that talented a writer, and I don't think I'd want to put myself into that even if I was. I know that for a fact, because I was given an opportunity that I couldn't take. There are lots of torture techniques that require tools of some sort. Some are big, some are small, some are hands on, and others can be used and left to its own devices.

One of those torture devices was a box. It doesn't sound all that bad, does it? It was- it was big enough for a person to stand inside, but not enough to stand up straight. You had to bend to get inside. It was wide enough for a person to stand inside, but not enough for them to sit down. The walls weren't necessary sharp, but too uncomfortable to actually lean against. A person had to stand with their body bent and straight, being unable to find any relief from sitting or leaning to shift their wait. They would put people in here and leave them for hours. Hours of being unable to rest in anyway. They had one of those boxes there, though obviously not an original. You could go inside and see what it was like...but I couldn't. Even the idea of stepping into that box made my heart race with claustrophobia I'd never had before that moment. I didn't want to put myself in the position of the people who were tortured here, I couldn't make myself step into their place, not without wanting to choke on the air I was breathing. I have never been hit this hard while in a museum, never felt the need to run, to get away. I fully admit that I ran out of that basement at that point, and I did not look back. If I felt the need to escape for that, how terrible must it have been for the people who were brought down here?

The first and second floor of the exhibition hall are no less sombre and poignant, but it's done in a different way. These floors are designed to make the people who were imprisoned here real to visitors. Here we get a glimpse of who they were, even if actual names are not explicitly given (there was a list, but they didn't actually provide a picture to match). These floors show us what the prisoners went through that wasn't torture, and why they were going through it. It sets up the society that made these people risk everything to protest. It focuses first on the state of Korea when the Japanese took over (which I've covered before, so I'll give the cliffnotes version: Japan attempted to wipe out any semblance of a Korean society. They attempted cultural genocide on top of treating the people brutally), and then once the military dictatorship was in control of the country. When it came to people who were fighting against them, the government didn't treat them any better than the Japanese did their forefathers. Both of those governments wanted to stay in power, so they were going to brutally put down anyone who was even a potential threat to that. There are interesting artefacts on these two floors, but there's one room that stands out in particular. In its own way, it was as powerful as the basement, but in a different manner. This wasn't brutal, but incredibly sad and sobering. It was the room that did give faces to the people who were brought to this place. It's a big empty room, and when you first go in, looks like it has some weird kind of wallpaper on all the walls. When you get in further, you realize its not wallpaper at all. It's thousands of little pictures, pieces of some sort of identification card. It took me a moment, but when I realized just what I was looking at, all I could think was 'oh'. These cards were the ones that the prisoners were forced to carry. I was looking at the faces of the people who were forced into this prison. Some were old, black and white pictures from the earlier days, and others in full colour. There were pictures of men and women, people young and old. The pictures were all different, but there was something similar in them all- the look on their faces. There was determination there, and maybe some fear. These were people who knew what was coming, what was going to happen here, and faced the camera with that knowledge in mind. They were people who understood just how terrible their situation was, and their faces reflected it. This room forced you to know that these people were very, very real. You can't dismiss their history when you're looking in their eyes, even if it's only a picture. You can't ignore what happened there when you see who it happened to. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. I don't know the names of those people, or what happened to them in the end. I don't know if they lived or were able to walk out of that place alive. Yet I know they all had a story, and the sheer magnitude of these pictures drove that home. This was, without a doubt, the most powerful place in the whole museum.

The exhibit hall in the old intelligence building isn't the only building open to the public. The central prison building, where the warden used to run the prison, is set up to show how the prison was run. For all that it was horrific, a lot of administrative effort went into running this place. It would have been a full time job, and the warden's office exhibit shows you a little slice of it. Also in the building are photographs that showed the every day life at the museum (lunch time, exercise time...the parts far more normal) and artefacts that the prisoners would have had/owned, such as outfits and work tools. The pictures are what stood out to me the most- they're usually filled with smiling, at least semi-happy looking people. Nothing in those pictures looks out of place, and one would see them out of context and think 'wow, that prison must not have been so bad'. These would have been the photos they showed outsiders whenever it came up, one that was used to brush away any potential questions or concerns. It's propaganda at its finest. Knowing that, and wondering just what you'd have to do to make the people you're trying to break, pretend like that, makes it that much more insidious. Another building is where another staple of prison life happened- exploiting the free workforce by making them do labour for whoever was in charge. The Engineering Work Building was where textiles and clothes were made by the inmate labour force (and it goes without saying they were heavily exploited). They made everything from military supplies (which was just one more slap in the face to the people sent there because they were protesting the military in charge) to textiles to be used at the prison itself. Remeber those bricks I loved so much? They were also made here. Not only to be used for the prison, but all over the province. So again, slave labour to build the prison you've been sent to. There's so much terrible irony in that that it's up there with the term 'mind blowing'.

Then of course, there are where the prisoners actually live. There were three residence buildings, two for men and one for women. The buildings for the men are the biggest and clearly meant to hold more people. They are two story, long buildings. When you go inside, it's a long hallway with doors on either side. The walls are solid white concrete, with the only colour being the green metal cell doors. The only breaks in the walls are a small window at the top of the door and a small mail-slot like opening, where a guard could open the metal flap and look in on the prisoner inside. There's a small wooden knob beside the door, called a pae tong. It's a piece of wood that can be pushed out from the inside of the cell. If a prisoner was having an emergency, they could let the stick fall out to let the guards know. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like a pretty flawed system- emergencies can mean being unable to move, let alone have the coordination to get to that exact place and push on the little area. That's also assuming the guards would answer the help signal, because after seeing the rest of this prison, I highly doubt it would happen that way. The ceiling is made of wood beams with pretty big gaps in them. They look almost half put together, like whoever built the place got started and then said 'good enough' about half way through. The roof is still complete, of course, but it's really obvious there's no insulation in that place. There was probably very little to keep the cold from seeping in, and it gets really cold in Korea. The cells themselves were tiny and bare, and really depressing because of it. There was nothing there to make the cells more human, to give them life, and that's terrible. It's another form of psychological warfare, a way to dehumanize prisoners further. Colour and decoration may seem like the most trivial thing ever, especially on top of everything else, but it's something for a person to focus on, to cling to in order to keep a bit of sanity. The prisoners -of either the Japanese or the military dictatorship- weren't even given that little bit of a distraction.

The women's barracks were much of the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale. There were less female prisoners, though that doesn't mean they were treated any less harshly. They've turned the women's prison building into another exhibit hall, this time focusing exclusively on how women contributed to both the independence and pro-democracy movement. Whenever and wherever there has been a call to revolution, a fight for freedom, or a war to fight, women have always been there along with men. They fought, they protested, they planned, they spied. Women have always fought in one way or another, and yet they're the ones who tend to either be forgotten or have their contributions completely dismissed. History tends to (wilfully at times, in my opinion) just acknowledge them, which is why I was really impressed that the museum gave information on them in quite a great amount of detail. They outlined the way these women helped and what they did, as well as focused on the mail players in both of the movements. It wasn't a brief footnote, but a really good look at that section of history.

After the cell blocks, there's really only one major building left (though I'd like to take a moment to state that there is a small building built on top of a small hill made of stones right beside a guard tower. That was for patients with leprosy. That's right- leprosy was a problem on top of everything else). That building, depending on your philosophy, might be the worst building of all. It's not brick like the others, and quite small as well. It's made of wood boards and about the size of a garage. It actually really looks like one too. It's in the far corner of the grounds, something that you probably wouldn't even think about while you let your eyes glance over it. As always, there's a reason why. It wasn't designed that way as an afterthought or some other reason like they ran out of bricks. This building was designed to look boring and unimportant, because they didn't want anyone to look too closely at it. They wanted it to stay inconspicuous, because this is the building where they took their prisoners to be executed. This small wooden shed is where people were brought to die, and that is why it might just be the most terrifying building in the whole complex (again, it depends on each person- which is worse? Torture or death?). You can't go in (thank God), but you can look through the windows to see inside. It's nothing special- just a small room with concrete floors, the middle lower than the rest. There's enough room for a person and their killer(s) to go in. It doesn't say how these executions were carried out, which kind of made it worse. You can't help but imagine it, when your brain jumps to conjuring images before you can stop it. When you don't know, it goes through a slideshow of possibilities, where you see people die in all different ways. You imagine people knowing what's going to happen, maybe crying or forcing themselves to be stoic. You picture people praying and maybe pleading as they were led into that room, and then you picture them dying many different ways. To the side of the building, there's a tunnel. It's manmade, built into and out of the stone wall. There's two large metal doors, and it's not really all that big. Maybe two-three people could fit in there are once. Again, a fairly boring looking thing holds a dark history.

As it turns out, executing too many people was always frowned upon, especially when it gave the prison (and thus the governments in charge of it) a bad name. You'd think that would just stop them from killing people, but that clearly wouldn't work (tone can be hard in writing, so I am stating outright that this is said sarcastically). Instead of just not killing people, they had to hide it when they did. That's why they had this tunnel- they'd execute people in them middle of the night, and then sneak the bodies out through the tunnel. No one would see them doing it, so they could deny it completely. It was a way to lie, plain and simple, and to get away with doing terrible things. I can say in all honestly that it haunted me for the rest of the day, these images. This whole place haunted me, and that's something a place is rarely able to do.

While that's the end of the museum, it's not technically the end of the. While it's not actually part of the museum, it's basically considered an extension to it. The museum shows all the terrible that happened, and the next place honours the people all that terrible happened to. About five minutes away from the museum is Independence Park. Independence Park is dedicated specially those who died fighting for independence from Japan. There's Independence Hall, a traditional hanok building that houses the ancestral tablets of patriots who died protesting the Japanese government. There's a statue of Songjae Shur Jae-Phil, an activist who wrote a pro-Korean independence newspaper and is considered one of the greatest leaders of the March 1st Movement.

There's another statue on top of a of men and women in hanboks hoisting up the Korean flag, and that is dedicated to all the martyrs who died in the fight. Then there's Dongnimmun, or Indepedence, Gate. I'd actually say that this rather small, stone gate, in the centre piece for the park, and it's rather funny, because it's not directly related to the Independence Movement from Japan at all. The gate was actually built after the first Sino-Japanese war (China vs. Japan from 1894-1895, fighting over who got to control Korea) in order to assert Korean independence and a break from the old official declaration as Korea as China's tributary state. Many years later, the symbolism remained when the Koreans needed to assert that independence once again. It's really interesting to see, because this gate in no way looks Korean. In fact, it looks really European, like something you'd see in a place like Italy. I was off in my idea of Italy, but it was built to look European. The builder was inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, and I really do see the resemblance there. I admit I find it odd that a symbol for Korean independence would be based off a landmark from a completely different country, but it definitely makes it stand out. It's really small, just like the park around it. Seriously, it's not even really big enough for a nice stroll. That said, I'd still go see it, especially after going through the prison. The prison is despair, is the lowest that the independence/democracy movements could reach. It was the disastrous consequences of the fight, and it almost seemed hopeless, even when you already know the outcome.

Yet not to far away, there's a place that is all about the success. Yes, it's dedicated to the ones who fell while fighting, but it's dedicated to them because they won. After all the pain and suffering, independence and democracy was achieved, so they were able to create a place to honour them.

And this brings me back to the beginning. In the end, this museum was made to honour the past, to make sure remember all that happened there, good and bad. That's what history is- it's a story. It shouldn't be used to foster or destroy national pride- it should just be. History is full of good and bad from everyside, and you shouldn't try and brush that under the rug. You can't just try and cover up the brutal things that have happened, even when it's your own people/country/other that's done them. You can -have to- teach history, good and bad. You look at the terrible things and make sure your students know that this should never happen again, and you look at the good things and say 'yes, aim for that'. Historical revisionism is a horrible tool, and I hate it. I hate that they (in this case, the people pushing these new universal textbooks in Korea) would feel the desire to downplay the horrific things that happened to people who were either fighting for independence or democracy. These people suffered and died to create the Korea there is today, and it makes me so angry. It's not even a Korea thing either- I feel the same rage whenever I see it anywhere, including Canada. It's not okay. I've always believed that, but after going to the prison museum? After seeing exactly who these people are that they are trying to vilify? It's something that makes me want to scream. That's why I think everyone needs to see this museum (or the million others like it across the room). Taking someone out of history, or making them a villain to make the current government look better, is wrong, and it's places like this that will make it obvious to you in stark reality. We need these places, and if you're in Seoul, I really think you need to see this one in particular.

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niori_1709

August 2017

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