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Fellow Essay
Seodaemun Prison

Adam Bohnet
University of Toronto, Department of History
Shortly after arriving in Korea in the fall of 2004, I visited Dongnimmun, or Independence Gate. The gate is in a park in a neighborhood just outside of the downtown core. It is positioned between the university neighborhood of Sinchon, where I study, and the economic and political center of Gwanghwamun, where I live. A pleasant walk over Inwang Mountain (The sign in front reminds us not to smoke, litter, approach the military installations, or engage in shamanistic activities), past some small farms and under an expressway, led me to the park.

The park seems to be primarily concerned with bitter memories of the Japanese colonial period. Indeed, the biggest installation in the park is a monument to Japanese colonial cruelty: Seodaemun Prison. During my first trip there, I read the sign in front which discussed the role of the prison during Japanese rule. I was somewhat short of time, but the leaves were changing and the weather pleasant, so I took a short walk around.

My subject is not modern history. Yet I had vague memories from my days as a graduate student at Kangwon National University of people telling me that the prison continued to be used following liberation. I made a mental note to visit it again on another occasion.

My several visits have been interesting, but also rather disturbing. A sign in the courtyard reminds us that it was preserved to inspire the national consciousness of Korean youth. One hardly needs such a reminder. Both in the museum placed in the center of the monument and in the explanations in the numerous prison buildings, the tone is unremittingly militant. The "barbarous" torture inflicted on patriotic Korean independence activists, and the "unbounded cruelty" of the Japanese oppressors, are on display, as is the heroic refusal of the independence activists to break down in the face of such cruelty. We pass by the tiny cells in which independence activists were deprived of sunlight and basic human dignity, and are presented with installations detailing the torture endured by the activists.

One installation is especially concerned with the torture of female prisoners, while another discusses sexual torture. You can even experience the torture for yourself in a special interactive section. We are shown the faces of some of the more illustrious prisoners, from Confucian loyalists to social democrats. There is an especially large section devoted to Yu Gwansun, a girl who went to a school near where I live, but who died in prison for her political activism.

At the head of the stairs on the second floor of the museum, we are met by the smiling face of Sygnman Rhee (Yi Seungman), the first president of South Korea. How many of the children for whom the monument seems to be targeted realize that Rhee himself sent political rivals and left-leaning dissidents to the prison? The prison, as we are told in passing by a sign at the front of the monument, was only abandoned in 1987. Most of the adults who visit the prison are aware, to a certain extent I am sure, of its post-1945 history. Yet concerning the period between 1945 and 1987 we are told almost nothing.

Much of the graffiti in the monument is virulently anti-Japanese. I hesitate to make too much of graffiti - the authors of the graffiti are, after all, breaking the law by defacing a historical monument. However, I do consider it worrying that a monument that is aimed, seemingly at children, should be concerned so entirely with the remembrance of hatred. I don't doubt that most of what is said in the monument is true. I don't doubt that brutal torture was practiced, including sexual torture. I have no desire to minimize the horrors of Japanese rule. It is right and proper that these events be remembered, in Korea, in Japan, and even in Canada. We should always also remember, though, that some of these did not stop after 1945.

I am not qualified to enter into the numerous controversies concerning modern Korean history. I also do not want to engage in the numerous debates concerning the role of national history. Perhaps national history should be used to encourage national pride. It is important, nevertheless, that this national pride be based on the truth. This is especially the case now, with Koreans of all political stripes calling on the Japanese to correct their "distortions of history." It is, of course, unfortunate that some schools in Japan will be teaching the early 20th century history of Japan without mentioning the many brutalities of that period. But for Koreans to criticize Japan, they need to be twice as careful about their own activities. It would be uncomfortable, I am sure, to tell the full story of Seodaemun Prison. It might diminish national pride, and would certainly take the edge off anti-Japanese hatred. Koreans who argue in this manner, however, are making the same argument that is made by those right-wing Japanese who call for adoption of "patriotic textbooks."

The story of Seodaemun Prison has been told by many Korean scholars before me. I have not read even a fraction of the literature on the subject. No doubt much of what I say is old news. I would like to suggest, however, that "distortions of history" are more harmful to the distorters than to the distorted. The victims of the patriotic Japanese textbooks are the Japanese students who read them, of course, but also the angry scholars who write them. Koreans, by leaving out half of the history of Seodaemun Prison, produce the impression that Koreans are not concerned over what happened in the Seodaemun prison after 1945.

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