Seodaemun Prison History Hall

This history of South Korea is rather sad, especially the past 100 years as Korea was occupied by Japan for 40 years and for 3 years there was the Korean war, between the communist North and the South. During the Japanese occupation, huge prisons were erected all around the country to lock up Korean freedom fighters. The biggest and most known one being Seodaemun prison, now also known as Seodaemun Prison History Hall. Read on to find out more.

seodaemun prison history hall

What To Know Before Visiting Seoul

  • Seoul Itineraries – Use these Seoul itineraries to help you plan your visit.
  • Seoul Sightseeing Bus – Use the sightseeing bus to get around Seoul. This tourist bus gets you to the best sights in Seoul. Check more info.
  • Transportation Card – Getting around Seoul by bus or subway has never been easier, especially when using the transportation card. Check more info here.
  • Seoul Pass – The Seoul pass gives you instant access to over 35 different attractions. All with only buying one ticket. Check more info here.
  • Foreigner Discounts – Use websites like Trazy or Klook to get the best foreigner discounts for attractions, museums and even restaurants.

Japanese Occupation In Korea

Before visiting Seodaemun Prison, it is important to know a little background about the Japanese occupation in Korea.

  • The Japanese occupation started in 1910, for the first part until 1919 the occupation was very harsh as it was directly ruled through the military.
  • Even through the occupation was extremely hard, by the end in 1945, South Korea was the second-most industrialized nation in Asia. The occupation stimulated urban growth, mass culture and international commerce.
  • Koreans were forced to work in Japanese factories, like at Seodaemun prison. Many young Korean women were drafted to be comfort women for the Japanese soldiers.
  • During the second world war (only after 1945), Korean soldiers were sent to the front to be part of the Japanese army. These Korean fighters were called 총알받이 or bullet eaters.

Books To Read About The Japanese Occupation

For those interested in Korean history, there are loads of books covering the Japanese occupation in South Korea. Like every conflict or war in the world, the story of the Japanese Occupation in Korea has two sides, the view from a Korean perspective and from a Japanese perspective.

Overview Of Seodaemun Prison History Hall

Two years before the Japanese occupation, Gyeongseong Prison was built to help suppress the Korea’s independence movements. It was a prison which was suitable to house around 500 inmates. As the prison population kept rising, the prison rapidly expanded and was renamed as Seodaemun Prison.

The prison was mainly to lock up Korean independence fighters and existed of a Male prison building, female prison building, factories, exercise buildings, leper’s building and execution building.

seodaemun prison seoul

During the 40 years of use almost 40 000 prisoners passed through the building and up to 400 Koreans died here, or from execution or from the bad living conditions.

seodaemun prison history hall

1. Exhibition Hall

The first building to enter is the 3 floor exhibition hall, this gives info in both English and Korean about the history of the building, the independence fighters and the torture techniques used in the prison.

1.1 National Resistance

The national resistance were people from all over the country fighting and sabotaging the Japanese occupation. The whole 2nd floor of the exhibition hall is dedicated to these people.

The righteous army was formed by Yu In-seok and fought against the Japanese army, Japanese merchants and pro-Japanese bureaucrats. This army fought hard to liberate Seoul from the Japanese, but never succeeded to take back the capital. Over 17 000 soldiers were killed over 40 years and many more were imprisoned or wounded.

seodaemun gu seoul

One of the most important movements in Korean history was the 1st of March movement in 1919. This huge protest was organised by Yu Gwan Sun. An 17 years old university student from Ehwa Woman’s University. This protest attracted people from all over the nation, and gave showed the whole world their discontent.

1.2 Torturing At Seodaemun Prison

The underground chambers of the administration building were used for interrogation and torture. The torture techniques were extremely inhumane and atrocious. Torturing methods included water torture, fingernail torture, box torture, narrow room torture and many more. These techniques were used to gain information for the independence fighters and to suppress the Korean population.

torture at seodaemun prison seoul

2. Men Prison Cell Blocks

Seodaemun prison was originally built to house 500 inmates, but up to 3000 people used to be imprisoned, making the prison massively overpopulated. Two square meter cell blocks could house around 40 to 50 people at a time. There was hardly any space for the inmates to properly lie down when sleeping.

The prison was built in a fan-like shape. Three rows of cells were connected to a single guard post. The cells were unsanitary and overpopulated. On top of that exercise time, food and medication were scarce in the prison.

cell blocks at seodaemun prison history hall

2.1 Sim Hun’s Peom: Letter to My Mother

Thought I was handcuffed and wore a mask. I was escorted by the police.
Mother!
When the sun was blazing. The cell was like a furnace. At night, while I could not stretch my legs, fleas bit me. So I had to crouch to spend a night for a month. Even in this hell, none regretted and suffered. But their eyes are shining bright.

3. Factories At Seodaemun Prison

Twelve factories were constructed at Seodaemun prison history hall were textiles, clothes and other military supplies were made using forced labour of the prisoners. Different prisons in South Korea had factories on their ground, all specializing a couple of products.

The working hours for the prisoners were 10 to 14 hours a day. Each day when the prisoners were moved from the factory to the jail and back they had to jump naked over a wooden bar, this was a way to inspect if any dangerous objects were being smuggled.

4. Leper’s Building

Prisoners with leprosy were locked in a building away from all the other inmates to prevent the contagious disease from being spread. In contrast with the other prison blocks, this one was being heated in the cold winter months.

5. Execution Building

The execution building was only built in 1923 and many freedom fights were executed here by hanging. This building is now classified as a National Historical Site No. 324. After freedom fighters were hung here, their body was taken out of the prison at night through a secret tunnel.

execution hall seodaemun prison hall

6. Women Prison Cell Blocks

Women who were sexually discriminated often took part in protests during the Japanese occupation, the were usually commoners like nurses, students, teachers and factory workers. The women cell blocks are much smaller than those for men and are located at the back of the prison. Famous
Yu In-seok was imprisoned in this building, in cell number 8.

woman prison cell seodaemun prison south korea

Practical Info About Seodaemun Prison History Hall

Opening Hours: March – October: 9:30 – 18:00, November – February: 9:30 – 17:00
Address: 251, Tongil-ro, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul
Closest Subway Station: Dongnimmun Station (line 3)
Entrance Fee: 3000 won or free with Discover Seoul pass

Other War Prison Camps Around The World

Seodaemun prison was unfortunately not the only war camp used in the 20th century. All over the world gruesome camps like the Japanese colonial prison were being operated. Below is a list of some major prisons and a comparison with Seodaemun Prison.

1. Dachau In Germany

When Adolf Hitler became Reich Chancellor in 1933, he wasted no time in setting up a concentration camp in Dachau for political prisoners. It was the first camp of its kind created by the Nazi government, serving as a model and training ground for the camps that were to follow.

For 12 years Dachau was a site of violence, where 41,500 people were murdered in the so-called “work camp”. Prisoners from all across Europe were subjected to harsh living conditions and forced labour at Dachau and its subsidiary camps. If people didn’t fall victim to disease, they were used for medical experiments, killed through work, or murdered.  

The terror at Dachau continued until 1945 when American troops liberated survivors. In 1965, a memorial was established in the former concentration camp so that visitors can pay respects and learn about this dark time in human history. // Contributed by Rhonda from Travel Yes Please.

work and prison camp

2. Majdanek In Poland

In the second world war the Germans built a lot of concentration camps in Poland. Some were solely used as labour camps, others were also used to exterminate the Jews. When the Red Army advanced the Germans tried to destroy all the evidence of the crimes they committed, but sometimes they didn’t have enough time to do so, like in Majdanek in Lublin.

Majdanek is one of the best preserved concentration camps in Poland and is now a museum in memory of the victims of this camp and to make sure this part of history will not be forgotten. It was opened in 1944 and was the first museum of its kind in Poland. Besides the exhibitions, they currently also run educational and academic activities about the camp.

Majdanek was built in 1941 in Eastern Poland and was both a labour and extermination camp. At first soviet prisoners of war were used to provide forced labour, later Jews and political prisoners from Lublin and beyond were held at the camp. Of the 150,000 prisoners 80,000 were killed. Most of them were Jews. // contributed by Ellis from Backpack Adventures.

Majdanek labour camp

Seodaemun prison was a labour camp but not an extermination camp like Majdanek in Poland. The purpose of Seodaemun was to oppress the Korean freedom fighter and not to exterminate a certain ethnic group.

3. Natzweiler-Struthof In France

Natzweiler-Struthof was the only primary concentration camp in France during World War II, although it was the central headquarters of 63 subcamps throughout the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and the German states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Hesse. Located on a former ski resort in the beautiful Vosges Mountains of Alsace, an area chosen so inmates could perform the backbreaking work of quarrying granite from the mountain.

Unlike other Nazi concentration camps, Natzweiler-Struthof was not initially built for the execution of Jewish peoples, but to hold members of the French Resistance, which was quite similar to Seodaemun History Prison Hall.  Eventually though, the site was chosen to initiate tests designed to prove the biological inferiority of the Jewish race, as well as tests using Romani Gypsies to seek a vaccine for Typhus. Prisoners used for these purposes were selected from Auschwitz, and transported to Natzweiler.

Natzweiler-Struthof was liberated on November 23, 1944. It is estimated that 19-20,000 people died in the camp, some from public shootings and hangings, and others from medical tests. But the majority of lives were taken by exhaustion, malnutrition, and infectious disease. // contributed by Roxanna from Gypsy With a Day Job.

Natzweiler-Struthof

4. Terezín Ghetto In Czech Republic

Terezín Ghetto and Concentration Camp is located about 45 minutes from Prague. Prior to WWII, it was used as a prison for political prisoners, like at Seodaemun Prison History Hall, including Gavrilo Princip. However, during WWII, it was used by the Nazis as a propaganda camp.

The Nazis used the camp to convince foreign agencies that the conditions within the camps were better than reports indicated. Hitler even went so far as to declare Terezín a city built for the Jews. And Terezín was different. Inmates there were allowed to create art, play sports and put on plays. However, this was only so that the Nazis could film these activities and use them as propaganda and proof that those inside the camps were not being mistreated.

But this by no means meant life in Terezín was easy. More than 140,000 people passed through Terezín during WWII, over 33,000 of which died there. Many of those died of starvation and malnutrition, while many more died from abuse. A further 88,000 were sent to their deaths in other concentration camps and ghettos. // contributed by Dagney of Cultura Obscura.

terezín ghetto

5. Hellfire Pass In Thailand

Hellfire Pass is in the Kanchanaburi Province in Thailand. It’s the name given today to the railway cutting of Burma to Thailand railway which was built by Japanese Prisoners of War in World War II. Like in Korea, Japan conquered other countries in South East Asia, like Thailand and Burma. The Hellfire Pass was not a prison as such, but like in Seodaemun Prison History Hall, the Prisoners of War were required to perform forced labour.

This section of railway was the most challenging section to build as the men had to carve through solid rock with limited tools and under the endurance of 18-hour shifts. The passage is so called because of the way it looked when the men worked by firelight in the late hours. The dramatic rock cutting is 75 meters long, and 25 meters deep the excavation of which was done mainly by hand.  Today when you walk down the newly compacted trail it’s hard to believe how these men achieved what they did.

A visit to the pass begins at the Hellfire Pass Visitors center a museum built by the Australian Government. The exhibitions are exceedingly well laid out and informative. The journey through the cutting starts with a heart-wrenching video made by surviving POW’s.

This section of the railway has now been removed, but you can walk various parts. The first section is short and ends at the memorial. To walk the whole length a good level of fitness is required as the heat of the jungle takes its toll.  The walk is highly recommend, you can read more about it, along with the war cemetery and other museums in the Kanchanaburi area here. // contributed by Fiona of Passport and Piano.

Hellfire Pass war memorial

6. Sachsenhausen In Germany

Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau or Dachau not many people have heard of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It’s not surprising considering the people living right next door to the prison didn’t know what went on there. The camp was primarily used for political prisoners and as an administrative center of the Nazi concentration camp system. It was originally designed to hold 10,000 prisoners but eventually the number of inmates swelled to over 50,000. Naturally the conditions became unbearable and despite the massive increase in prisoner numbers the sanitation facilities remained the same. Lice, infectious diseases and open wounds were rife, and many prisoners died from starvation and lack of medical care, just like in Seodaemun Prison.

Torture was common place as was medical experimentation. Tests were performed on twins and others involved cold water submersion, and the effects that mustard gas and a methamphetamine drug cocktail had on the test subjects. Sachsenhausen wasn’t built with the facilities to carry out mass murder. However over 30,000 people were killed there including 10,000 Russian prisoners who were shot by S.S Guards. // contributed by Audrey of Gumnuts Abroad.

Sachsenhausen

7. Mittelbau-Dora Camp In Germany

Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp is located in central Germany in the Harz Mountain region just north of the town of Nordhausen. In 1943 prisoners carved tunnels into the Kohnstein Mountain to house a factory to produce both the V-2 rocket and the V-1 flying bomb. In the Fall of 1944 the camp was made an independent camp by the German SS and quickly grew to have thirty of its own sub-camps throughout the region. By the time Mittelbau-Dora was liberated by American forces in April 1945 nearly 60,000 prisoners had been sent to the camp complex. At least 20,000 of them perished. You can visit the Mittelbau-Dora memorial and museum, and learn of the camp’s history by taking a guided tour of the grounds and tunnels. // contributed by Lori of Travlinmad.

8. Hoa Lo Prison In Vietnam

Hoa Lo Prison, is most known for being derisively called the Hanoi Hilton by US Prisoners of War (POWs) during the Vietnam War. It has a much longer history as a prison during the French occupation of Vietnam from the late 1800 to the mid 1900s. During the 1930s and 1940s, Hoa Lo was used to house political prisoners fighting against the French for the independence of Vietnam. Prisoners were interrogated and tortured. Some were executed (the original guillotine is on display). The Vietnamese prisoners also self-organized political readings and education sessions.

After the French withdrawal and during the Vietnam War, Hao Lo was used to torture and interrogate US POWs. This is the prison where the late US Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain was held for 6 years.

Part of the former prison is now a museum, just like the Seodaemun Prison History Hall. It focuses on the French period with graphic portrayals of the conditions. There is a section portrays the treatment of the US POWs in a very favorable light. The photo below is a display of the clothes worn by Pham Thi Le Hai during a breakout from the prison by Vietnamese political prisoners on 3/11/1945. // contributed by Sue of Travel For Life Now.

Hoa Lo Prison In Vietnam

9. Liaoyuan In China

Europeans know little about the brutal Japanese occupation of Manchuria. During WW2, troops populated the entire area of China. The area was known to be rich in coal, and Japan wanted to get their hands on it. But the mining was dangerous; so they commanded local Manchurians – who were now their prisoners – to mine for the coal, inflicting terror on anyone who refused.

The slave labour couldn’t be described as work, just like during the Japanese Occupation in Korea and at Seodaemun Prison – the miners worked long days, every single day, with no time off, barely any food, and nothing in the way of pay. They slept in cramped, dingy conditions and if anyone resisted they were killed. Men working in the mines were separated from their families, and many families received eventual bad news that their loved ones had died from overwork and malnutrition.

In Liaoyuan, a city of about 500,000 people in north east China, there is a museum depicting the Mukden Crisis and Japanese occupation in the area. Despite there being virtually no western tourists to Liaoyuan, displays are written in English. Even more shocking than the exhibits is the mass grave that has opened, showing hundreds of skeletons of people who were thrown in their after they died due to the regime. // contributed by
Claire of Claires Footsteps

Liaoyuan prison camp

10. S-21 In Cambodia

The dreadful history of this camp is one of the most experiences you can ever see. Known as the Tual Sleng Genocide Museum, this prison camp is located in the capitol of Cambodia Phnom Penh.

The Khmer Rouge took over this school and turned it into a torture camp. Nowadays, you can pay to freely walk around the camp and see what methods were used to torture the prisoners here. Some of the torture equipment can still be seen in the camp and over 6000 photos of the prisoners are still displayed on the walls. The S-21 camp is a very good way of learning about the gruesome history of the Khmer Rouge regime. However, be prepared to be shocked into the history. // contributed by Louis of the Northern Boy

Of the 14 000 prisoners that entered the S-21 prison in Cambodia, only 7 are known to have survived. This in contrast with Seodaemun prison is quite different. Of the 40 000 people that passed through Seodaemun prison, 400 Koreans died.

11. Sandakan In Malaysian Borneo

Just like Seodaemun Prison History Hall, the death camp of Sandakan was created by the Japanese. The purpose was to house Allied Prisoners of War in World War II in order that they were available to build a runway on the island of Borneo. This runway now forms the runway of Sandakan Airport and is in use today.

2434 POWs were incarcerated here, 1787 of them were Australian, the remaining were British. By late 1944, reduced rations caused in part by Allied bombing raids, torture and disease had reduced the number of POWs to 1900. In January 1945 the Allies bombed the runway and the Japanese captors decided to move the POWs towards the town of Ranau, some 260 kilometers away.  It was the first of the three forced Sandakan-Ranau “death” marches.

Most POWs had no footwear. If they were unable to continue they were bayoneted by the side of the trail and left to die. By the time of the Japanese surrender of August 1945 only 6 POWs survived, these were 6 Australians who had escaped during the marches. All other POWs from Sandakan were dead. 25% of all Australians interred during WWI died here in Sandakan. The missing and those whose remains could not be identified are remembered at the Commonwealth Graves in both Labuan and Singapore. The location of the Sandakan death camp is now a park.  It is a peaceful place, where locals and visitors alike walk in quiet contemplation.
// contributed by Sarah of the ASocialNomad

12. Auschwitz In Poland

Auschwitz…there are not too many people in this world that will not know that name. Even now it can sent a shiver down your spine. Auschwitz Concentration Camp was originally a Polish Army Barrack before the buildings there were converted to be used for all types of barbaric things. From experiments on twins, red heads, to documenting people coming into the camp and anything else deemed fit. Now they are homes to some of the possessions that the Jewish people bought with them. Rooms are now filled with suitcases, shoes, photographs and hair that was shaved from the heads of the people sent there. It is a stark and confronting view of the atrocities that happened here on a massive scale.

Birkenau is also a part of this camp. You take a short bus ride out to the camp from Auschwitz, which is highly recommended. There are some building at both the camps that look quite plain but the things that happened inside the walls are ones that need explanation. Looming in the distance is the gateway that trains carrying hundreds of people would have passed under. You can see it coming for you and you do wonder how the people on the trains would have felt. You walk beneath it and see the fields before you, they go on and on. The sheer size of this camp is staggering.

Birkenau

Birkenau is where the people on the trains were ‘sorted’. If you could work you were spared and if you could not you were sent to the gas chambers at the end of the train tracks. You can walk the platform where people’s lives were decided with a sort of either to the left or to the right. Auschwitz-Birkenau is one of the saddest place you can visit, but you will feel that the people who died there didn’t want people to leave with hate, more a lesson on kindness.

A lesson on why you should be a better human to others and what the power of hate can make people do. It changes a place inside you and makes you realize you have the power in any situation to be kind and be powerful against those who aren’t, the power to stand against people who think this is ok, so it never happens again. // contributed by Bec of Wyld Family Travel

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the Seodaemun Prison History Hall entrance price?

A: Adults: Individuals 3000 krw / Group 2400 krw
Teenagers: Individuals 1500 krw/ Group 1200 krw
Children: Individuals 1000 krw/ Group 800 krw

Q: When is Seodaemun Prison closed?

A: Mondays (if Monday is a holiday, then closed on Tuesday), January 1st, Seollal & Chuseok.

Q: How long does it take to visit Seodaemun Prison Hall?

A: A visit to this museum takes about 2 hours.

Q: How do I go to Seodaemun Museum?

A: Seodaemun prison is located just next to Dongnimmun Station, exit 5.

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