Water torture, beatings, pins placed under one’s fingernails… Those were some of the torture methods carried out at the Seodaemun Prison in Seoul. In the basement of the complex, which is now a museum, visitors can see a display of a mannequins hung upside down with water being poured over their faces, and of prisoners waiting in a walled room where they would hear screams from other prisoners being tortured next door.
Korea was annexed by Imperial Japan and occupied from 1910-45. After 1945, the exhibition at the Seodaemun Prison Museum mostly ends but for a few vague notes that the prison remained in use until 1987. Nonetheless, the exhibitions on display might give us an idea of what took place in the prison–and other Korean prisons–between 1945 and 1987.
“The mission received evidence that the following kinds of torture had been used against individuals in Korean prisons:
i. water torture–cold water forced up the nostrils through a tube.
iv. beatings–particularly to the soles of the feet.
v. being hung from the ceiling and spun around.
vi. having a ball-point pen placed between the fingers…
xiii. intimidation by the use of screams from adjoining rooms.”
That’s from a report produced by Amnesty International based on a 1975 trip to South Korea. Seodaemun isn’t mentioned by name, nor is any other prison, but human rights abuses and political repression were the norm in South Korea for most of the years up until its democratization in 1987.
Compare and contrast Seodaemun Prison’s text with that of 1975 U.S. Congressional testimony on South Korean human rights issues:
“Shortwave Broadcasting Listening Incident
This was an incident where groups … working at the broadcasting station propaganda the ‘Chongqing Broadcasting’ and ‘Voice of America’, made by the Korean Provisional Government [in exile], to the public. However they were detected by the Japanese imperialists in December, 1942. As a result, a total of 150 people were arrested and imprisoned.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum
“A handful (four) of top liberal reporters were fired. … One hundred forty men and women, including all the 1 day announcers of the radio station, and most of the producers, took over the presses and the radio on the eighth of March and held them in an attempt to save the one free voice in South Korea. These brave men and women held out until predawn, March 17, when a goon squad broke into the building and drove all the strikers into the street. … Each morning they gather in silent protest… …They pass out a mimeographed ‘True Dong A Il Bo’ stating their case and a little of the truth about current affairs. On April 29, I was there to see the chief of police of Seoul arrive and deliver the third and final warning to the silent and unmoving line of men and women. They would be arrested if they came back.” – Reverend James P. Sinnott, Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, testimony before Congress, 1975
“There are some records regarding various torture methods. One such example can be described as ‘airplane torture’ in which a person’s hands and feet were tied back while being suspended in midair from an airplane. ‘Water torture’ was also used.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum
“Torture is frequently used by law-enforcement agencies both in an attempt to extract false confessions and as a tactic of intimidation. The methods of torture comprise, inter alla, (a) water torture-cold water forced up the nostrils through a tube, (b) electrical torture, often in conjunction with water torture, to sentivie parts of the body such as the toes and genitals, (c) the beating of persons tied hand and foot and suspended from the ceiling, (d) deprivation of sleep for prolonged periods–one case up to 15 days.” – Amnesty International report inserted into Congressional testimony, 1975
“After the restoration of national independence Seodaemun Prison was a historical symbol of Korea’s democratization movement until it was moved to another area in 1987. The victims from the tumultuous political events manipulated by the dictatorship along with the students, laborer and democratization activists who fought against the despotic regime were imprisoned, tortured or died here.” – Seodaemun Prison Museum
(The display elaborates somewhat in Korean)
I am writing this article at a cafe outside the National Cemetery for the April 19th Revolution. It is the final resting ground for the close to 200 victims who were killed by military and police protesting the autocratic Rhee Syng-man administration. After violent assaults on the protesters were unable to prevent protests from spreading Rhee stepped down, and South Korea briefly had real democracy, but Park Chung-hee would lead a military coup in 1961 and rule continuously until his assassination in 1979, which led to another military coup.
Park is credited by many with having transformed Korea through his policy of “guided capitalism” from a deeply impoverished country that couldn’t stand on its own to an Asian tiger on par with the West. Rhee, too, was not without his redeeming qualities. He guided South Korea through the Korean War and ensured its survival and United Nations backing in the war. South Korea faced trying times, with a Soviet- and Chinese- backed communist country, that for its early history was much stronger than it, threatened its existence staring down from the north. Balancing political freedoms with stability is tough in such a case. The tyranny of Park, Rhee, and Chun Doo-hwan, who followed Park, maintained South Korea’s stability while trampling on the rights of many of the people. It is my intention to show a clear-eyed version of history, including the positive and negative.
That is not the intention of national museums in many countries around the world. They are often focused on presenting the ruling government’s preferred version of history. Their country’s government and people were oppressed by outside oppressors and then rose up, as is often the case, but nary a mention of their own government’s oppression. Everywhere you go it’s the same.
In 1964, South Korea, under Park, sent troops to Vietnam to fight with the South Vietnamese and Americans to prevent communism from taking over the whole country. It was a similar situation to that South Korea found itself in when the military of the North crossed its border in 1950. When the United States withdrew in 1973, Park feared the possibility of American withdrawal, which was being considered more and more in the U.S. after Park’s emergency decrees.
Vietnam and South Korea are two countries that were on two different sides of the Cold War, that fought each other, but one thing about them is the same: their treatment of history.
At the Hoa Lo Prison Museum in Hanoi (commonly known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton”), visitors can see the figures of Vietnamese freedom fighters shackled in what was once a French colonial prison. Both museums feature prominent display of their oppressor’s instrument of death–in Hanoi, a guillotine; in Seoul, a room where Koreans were hanged. Both museums emphasize the great and noble struggle of the people held there who fought against imperialism. Both make passing references to the fact that some of them used terrorism tactics to resist imperialism. But just as the Seodaemun Prison Museum doesn’t (in English) mention the names of the democracy activists who spent time there, neither does Hoa Lo mention the poet Nguyen Chi Thien, who spent six of his twenty-seven years in captivity in Hoa Lo.
In each government’s treatment of their own political prisoners, both governments follow similar scripts. I cannot recall the Hoa Lo museum making any reference to post-war activities there. Seodaemun’s museum did, in a summary display, state, “It is a historical building that was operated as a prison for 8 decades from 1908 through to 1987 where many independence activists, during the Japanese occupation, as well as many democratization activists during the despotic regime after liberation, were imprisoned, tortured and died.” But the museum didn’t go into detail about the experience of the democratization activists.
Of course there is another historical event hanging over the Hanoi Hilton pertaining to the war. In its treatment of American POWs, Hoa Lo differs from Seodaemun. Rather than ignoring or downplaying the issue, the Hoa Lo Prison Museum distorts and lies. There you can see assurances that despite economic troubles, “the Vietnamese government created the best living conditions that they could for the US pilots.” Another sign says, “American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained.” Staged photographs of smiling Americans celebrating Christmas are displayed.
It reminded me of the Yushukan War Museum in Japan that referenced all of Japan’s most infamous war crimes but filled the spaces with whitewashed or outright false information. “The Nanking Incident” is written on a plaque, but only with a reassurance that Gen. Matsui told his troops not to attack the safe zone. The establishment of Manchuria, a Japanese puppet government in northern China, is mentioned with the claim that it was founded by Chinese minorities, rather than the Imperial Japanese themselves. Even the brutality of the Eight-Nation Alliance that ransacked Beijing and burnt down the Summer Palace is described, in order to contextualize the Japanese claims that their actions in Asia were meant to fight off barbarous Westerners who had carved up the continent; the inconvenient fact that Japan was itself a part of the alliance is dealt with with a claim that Japan’s soldiers alone were cheered by Chinese for their professionalism. It was like they felt a need to use the museum to address their critics.
As with Seodaemun, you can see how the Vietnamese really treated their prisoners in the displays of how the colonialists treated their prisoners.
Around the world, tyranny always looks the same.
*I should note that South Korea’s political prisoners are mostly a historical issue, while Vietnam continues to regularly imprison people for speech crimes.
**Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously included the wrong spelling of Park Chung-hee’s name.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.