|[Seodaemun Prison Buildings, photo by Jin Hee Kwon]
This week, I visited Seodaemun Prison to learn about the Korean Independence Movement that took place on March 1st, 1919. As I had lived outside of Korea for most of my life, I did not realize the significance of the movement nor did the role independence activists play in recovering the freedom of Korea. The Independence Movement was a nationwide movement that rallied Koreans against the oppressive Japanese colonialism. This year, Korea is celebrating its 99th year anniversary of independence.
When I visited, Seodaemun Prison, usually empty, was filled with families, elementary schools students, foreign tourists and a variety of other people who came to learn more about Korean history.
As soon as I arrived at the prison, at least a hundred of people had formed a line around the buildings and even on the outside of the history hall. Inside the prison, I discovered historical accounts of the Japanese colonization of Korea and the March First Independence Movement. From these, I was able to understand the bravery of the people of my motherland.
|[Torture Room in Seodaemun Prison, photo by Jin Hee Kwon]
Seodaemun Prison was built in the latter days of the Korean Daehan Empire. It was built with the objective of suppressing Korean patriots who were fighting to regain national sovereignty. It operated as a prison for 8 decades (1908-19087) where many independence activists during the Japanese occupation, as well as many democratization activists during the despotic regime after liberation were imprisoned, tortured and executed. The prison displayed several torture instruments and rooms, prison cells and execution chambers to demonstrate how the Japanese used inhumane acts as a means to suppress the Korean population.
Along the walls of the prison building hung pictures of imprisoned and tortured activists in memory of their sacrifices for Korea’s liberation. Among them I saw a familiar face-- a picture of a young girl of whom I had heard legends about for years: GwanSun Ryu (류관순), a 15 year old female independence activist and one of the most famous leaders of the Independence Movement.
GwanSun Ryu and countless other citizens proclaimed their independence and the liberty of Korea through the Independence Movement. After the Japanese Imperialists colonized the Korean Daehan Empire on August 29, 1910, the Japanese had oppressed the country with their brutal military rule and attempted to convert Korean culture and language into those of Japan’s.
As a result, groups of activists desperately gathered in several places across the country to resist the Japanese invasions and restore Korea’s sovereignty.
Activists launched independence movements both locally and abroad, starting in Seoul and then eventually spreading over the whole country. The Independence Movement was the first in which the whole of Korea participated. It was a critical turning point that united the Korean people towards independence and, to a great extent, nullified Japan’s cultural rule.
|[Monthly Independence Activists at Seodaemun Prison, photo by Jin Hee Kwon]
While walking through a jail hallway, I noticed that each cell contained information about the activist of the month: political independence activists that had significant roles in the liberation of Korea.
This month’s political activist was Kim Won-byuk (김원벽), a man who lead the independence movement on March first and fifth (at TapGol Park(탑골공원) and Namdaemun Station (남대문역) which is Seoul Station) but was eventually arrested at Seodaemun.
One other activist grabbed my attention- George Ashmore Fitch was January’s political activist, who had a significant role in the liberation of Korea: Fitch provided hiding places for Kim Gu, the leader of the Independent Provisional Government of the Republic of South Korea (temporary independent government/임시정부) in 1932, provided the US OSS(Office of Strategic Services) information about the colonization of Korea and performed other supporting activities for Korean Independence activists in Shanghai, Nanjing and other areas.
Before learning about Fitch, I only thought of Korean independence activists as Korean citizens fighting for their freedom, so I was surprised to learn that Fitch was a foreigner. Then, I realized that a person does not necessarily have to be a citizen of a country to fight for its independence.
|[Memorial Hall, photo by Jin Hee Kwon]
Towards the end of my visit to Seodaemun Prison, I noticed a room with prisoners’ mug shots covering the walls. Each photo was in memory of an individual who had supported the independence of his/her country and had stood up for what they believed with full knowledge of the risks they were taking. What really left an impact on me was seeing the faces of children, many of them who were my age or even younger, and it forced me to consider the possibilities of my life. Resisting against a higher power and standing up for what you believe may require great strength and courage, but those are what make change possible and I was determined to take risks for myself, too.
After 36 years of hardship, Korea was liberated on August 15th, 1945 and took back control of the government. Seodaemun Prison is a symbol of Korea’s 80-year journey to freedom. The site has been reborn as Seodaemun Prison history hall, expressing the invaluable importance of freedom and peace. The historical sanctuary has thereafter been operated as a symbolic place to represent the spirit of Korea’s national independence and democratization.
Jin Hee Kwon
Asia Pacific International School
Jin Hee Kwon firstname.lastname@example.org
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