The Seodaemun Prison History Hall is a museum and memorial that honors those who suffered and gave up their lives for Korea during the Japanese occupation. The institution was used by the Japanese to house independence and pro-democracy activists. It also represents the suffering of the Korean people as they struggled to archive independence and democracy.
Many people gave up their lives here for their country. This prison hall is a memorial and a stark reminder of those sacrifices.
Construction on the prison started in 1907 during the last years of the Great Korean Empire or Daehan Empire. When completed on October 21, 1908, it was known as Gyeongseong Gamok (Gyeongseong Prison). The name was changed to Seodaemun Gamok on September 3, 1912. The name was changed again on May 5, 1923 to Seodaemun Prison (Hyeongmuso).
On August 29, 1910, the Great Korean Empire was colonized by the Japanese.
For many decades, activists fought against the injustice of the Japanese occupation. Though brave, their numbers were too few to threaten Japan’s imperialistic and brutal rule. The Japanese attempted a cultural genocide on the Korean people including making them learn and only speak Japanese, making them pray to the gods of Japan, and making them adopt Japanese names.
When opened, the prison covered 1,600 square meters (17,222 square feet) and was designed to house some 500 prisoners and Korean independence fighters. At the height of the anti-Japanese movement around March 1919, the prison packed in up to 3,000 people. By the 1930s, the prison was expanded approximately 30 times due to the increase of incarcerated Korean independence activists.
In total, about 40,000 freedom fighters passed through the front gate of the prison. Of those, about 400 were executed or died from other reasons while incarcerated here. The Japanese continues executing and torturing inmates until liberation in 1945.
One of the most well known prisoners who was executed here was Ryu Gwansun. In 1919, Ryu was a student at Ewha Womans University, a university in western Seoul.
Ryu was one of the first organizers of the anti-Japanese movement known today as the March 1st Movement. She planned a demonstration against the Japanese occupation on March 1, 1919 with over 2,000 demonstrators. Japanese police quickly arrested Ryu and later sentenced her to seven years at Seodaemun Prison.
While in prison, Ryu continued to protest the occupation of Korea and for independence. Not surprisingly, she received constant beatings and was even torture by Japanese guards. She was often placed in solitary confinement cells that were no larger than 3.3 square meters (36 square feet). These cells had no electricity, no toilets, and no sunlight. It was in these cells were inmates were tortured.
She died here on September 28, 1920.
Korea was liberated on August 15, 1945, also known as Victory over Japan Day.
The prison has changed names multiple times since liberation including Seoul Hyeongmuso (November 21, 1945), Seoul Gyodoso (December 23, 1961), and Seoul Guchiso (July 7, 1967).
Seodaemun Prison operated as a prison for eight decades from 1908 to 1987.
On August 15 1992, the prison site was unveiled to the public as the Seodaemun Independence Park.
In 1995, the park was renovated and the Seodaemun Prison History Hall was opened.
Seven of the prison’s original fifteen buildings still stand today and have been designated historical monuments (No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, and the execution building).
Today, the memorial pays tribute to those who gave up their lives and serves as a reminder for future generations of the brutal history which occurred here for independence.