Sunday, July 29, 2012

The torture chambers at Namsan

I love Namsan. It's probably my favourite place in Seoul, as much for the view from the top as the running and the quiet on its sides. I'd heard oblique mentions to torture chambers there in the past, but having read that they were located under Namsan, I took the term literally, imagining them to be under Namsan in the way that the Namsan tunnels go under Namsan. However, the truth is that the KCIA, the forerunner to today's National Intelligence Service, and the Agency for National Security Planning that came between the two, maintained a complex of buildings that are mostly still in existence today. 

This image, which I've borrowed from the good people at the Democracy Road, shows buildings on the north side of Namsan between Namsan and Myeongdong, and their present function. Among them are the studios for the TBS radio station, where I've been a few times, as well as the offices of the Korean Red Cross and, most notably, the Seoul Youth Hostel, which is not only on the site of the former KCIA headquarters, but it's actually the exact same building.

Many well-known activists and dissidents were tortured and died here. This article from May interviews representative Lim Su-kyung about her experiences, along with providing a great deal of information on how these buildings were used and, typical in a country where modern history is something that nobody wants to discuss, the bid by many organizations to have the entire area turned into a memorial park to human rights.

Personally, if I could, I would build a Park Chung-hee Experience Zone (박정희체험관) to compliment the Park Chung-hee Memorial Hall that already exists next to the Seoul World Cup Stadium (here's a news article on the topic, with the headline quoting an old man who asks why the memorial is so small). The Experience Zone could use one of the buildings left behind by the two intelligence agencies, with exhibits on the first-floor and various torture apparatus to help re-create the era that so many older Koreans remember so fondly.

One of the most unfortunate things about Seoul is that, for a city that has been a capital for over 600 years and a city for 2,000 years, there is not much visible history. This is as much a result of colonization and war as it is relentless re-development, to the point that you could tell me this city was built from scratch forty years ago and I would believe you. Korea, as a very image-conscious country with a highly fractious recent history, will probably never highlight Namsan's bloody history for domestic or foreign visitors, leaving both to assume that Namsan is nothing more than a pleasant place with a lot of travel agencies that specialize in Chinese visas on its north side.


Dol1956 said...

FYI a number of westerns also spent time being interrogated in the hallowed halls of the former KCIA building. And a number of dissidents also perished or were maimed for life there. Can't say that I would want to sleep there

Anonymous said...

It won't happen as long as there is only a few degrees of seperation between the current crop of politicans and heads of chaebols and Park Chung Hee.

Anonymous said...

More than a little sanctimonious, but that's to be expected judging from your holier-than-thou blog roll. You must be one of the elite, intelligent folks that will lead us to Utopia.
And you need to get out and around Korea more. Your contention that there is not much visible history is nothing short of bizarre.

Matt said...

Really interesting article. I dont a lot about Seoul history, so learnt a lot.

Anne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne said...

Anonymous 2

What the fuck do you mean? I live and study in the Jongro and Jung-gu districts (the heart of Seoul's history) and I admit I haven't seen much of the city outside of those regions, but I have HEARD of actual historical landsites and monuments bulldozed (before I even got to see them, more's the shame) to make way for commercial interests, or even worse, corrupt government enterprises. Case in point, the razing of Dongdaemun Stadium to make way for a "History and Culture Park".If Korea were such a vibrant place, with such depth of culture as you imagine (and I'm not disputing that point, the history of Seoul is fascinating), foreigners would only need to walk around the city to get it, they wouldn't need to be "educated" about it the way children used to have nationalist jingo drilled into their heads in Kukmin-Hakgyo, for heaven's sakes.

Not to mention Cheonggye-cheon, the construction of which destroyed many archaeological sites. They spend so much energy pumping artificially cleaned water into that artificial stream, and to top it off, they catch fish from real rivers way off in the countryside, then dump them there, where the fish soon die from starvation and the chlorine in the water.

All this to say, I would MUCH welcome the creation of a 박정희체험관. It would help me brush up on my shamefully-inadequate-for-a-Korean's grasp on Korean history, and it would make for a far more interesting 100th day date than hanging yet another lock on the metal fences at the top of Namsan.

Chris in South Korea said...

Very interesting - this was linked to by the Bobster's House, and I was curious if there are any remnants still visible today at all...?