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
Brief Mention of Dissidents at Museum
“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)