By Kang Gahui and Kim Young Shin
Photos = Cultural Heritage Administration
Seoul | Feb. 18, 2019
Inside Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul stands panoptic prison barracks that allowed staff to easily control and monitor inmates.
On Feb. 18, Korea.net paid a visit to the prison-turned-museum where the exhibition “A Hundred Years Ago in Cultural Heritage,” which displays records on the March First Independence Movement and the establishment of the Korean Provisional Government, is being held. The items on display were inside prison cells cramped along the long corridor, and though the cold eased up outside, the cells were filled with frosty air just like a century ago.
In 1919, exactly a hundred years ago, thousands of Koreans nationwide joined the movement to demand independence from Japan, which had forcibly annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910. On April 13 of the same year, the Korean Provisional Government was established in Shanghai.
The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) said this exhibition commemorates these two crucial events in Korean history, during which many independence activists were arrested and tortured by the Japanese colonial government.
“Seventy-four years have passed since Korea’s liberation, which was thanks to numerous independence activists who gave up their lives in the fight. Today is just another ordinary day in the country all thanks to their sacrifices,” said CHA head Chung Jae-suk, adding, “The exhibition aims to trace the history of Korea’s independence movement against Japanese occupation.”
Visitors can see items related to Korea’s fight against Japanese imperialism from 1910, when the nation lost its sovereignty, to 1945, when the provisional government relocated to Seoul after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
The first item visible after entering the exhibition hall is a poem written by Joseon poet Hwang Hyeon (1855-1910), whose pen name was Maecheon, just before he committed suicide after Korea lost its independence.
The center of one barrack’s corridor houses a tunnel of the report cards of Korean independence fighters arrested by Japanese police. They included students, women and senior citizens who willingly sacrificed themselves for their nation.
Thirty percent of the inmates were from present-day North Korea, based on records of the 1,014 prisoners found at the prison.
“A wide range of people from across the Korean Peninsula, including from what is now North Korea, participated in the movement,” said the museum’s curator Park Kyung-mok. “The March First Independence Movement was a nationwide action with people participating from all walks of life.”
Also on display is a written oath by activist Lee Bong-chang (1900-32), who attempted to assassinate Japanese Emperor Hirohito, and his handwritten letters to Kim Gu (1876-1949), a major leader in the independence movement. A receipt showing the funds Kim sent to Lee for their cause is a powerful relic from their fight against Japanese occupation.
The exhibition will run through April 21. The original copies of records will be displayed on March 1, when the movement started, and April 11, the day the Korean Provisional Government was established.