On the Other Side of Another Wall

Written by Kayleigh Kleiva 
Edited by Dae-Han Song
Copy-edited by So Kom Grace Kim

Group photo in front of the Democracy and Human Rights Hall building. Source: ISC

Group photo in front of the Democracy and Human Rights Hall building. Source: ISC

It was eerily beautiful as we walked along the fortress wall of the Democracy and Human Rights Memorial building. It was peaceful standing beneath trees that hung over the security gate as we were introduced to the place where we stood. At its day, what used to be the anti-communist investigation division office at Namyeong had been camoflauged as a marine science research center. Its name and surrounding fortress disguised the horrors perpetuated behind its bricks. Now in the hands of a civil society organization, the formerly police-owned building is now open to the public. With the ISC tour, we learned not only about the atrocities committed against Korean activists, but also about the historical and political context in which the police operated.  

The social movements from the late 1970’s to the 1980’s were marked by labor rights issues, democracy movements, and called for an end to the military regime. This was the era in which the Gwangju uprising was quashed by military force, and a military rule blanketed Korean society. In the name of economic expansion, the country’s industry expanded at the expense of human rights concerns. The administration lacked legitimacy and Koreans demonstrated to express their demands for progress on a myriad of issues. The anti-Communist investigation division was one of the places used by the state to suppress social movements by detaining their leaders and activitists. Often, families were uninformed on the whereabouts of those detained. 

Much like the path the detainees had walked, the path our tour guide led us on took us to a back door curved behind a swell of bricks. As we climbed a tight spiral staircase leading straight into the main detention area on the 5th floorIt faintly resembled how it might have felt for those who walked the same stairs before us. What must it have smelled like? What sounds would they have heard? Standing over the wall of the investigation building stood a taller building where employees had been ordered to not look. People in the area reported hearing screams from inside these walls. The green doors of the main detention floor, sealed small rooms where the details of torture were mentioned during our tour. However this was not the focus. The biggest impact the tour had on me was appreciating the progress that’s been made through sacrifice, and all the more productive ways to look past histories of torture. 

The lives of victims lost in those rooms are honored within the unique curation of history, artifacts, and interaction. What struck me was how different each room was, and these differences offer a more holistic approach to memorialization. One room was preserved just as it would have appeared to someone locked inside. Others have had the few pieces of furniture removed and the bathrooms slightly remodeled. The remodeling done by the police whitewashed the original state of rooms used for torture and interrogation. The room where Kim Geun Tae was tortured had been completely transformed into a new space. Active in demonstrations against the Yushin Regime under Park Chung-hee as a Seoul National University student, he later formed the Democratic Youth Coalition in 1983. His arrest and subsequent torture occured in the anti-communist interrogation division office in 1985. He remained politically active after his torture, serving in parliament and briefly running for president. He passed away in 2006, from what many assume to be a long term effect of his torture. His daughter was heavily involved in the design of his room, as were many of the relatives of torture victims. It was important that the room served as a memorial to her father and gave the sense of hope, rather than showcasing the tools of torture that other participants wanted to include. Instead, warm wood tones and honeycomb motifs were styled into a study of sorts. Visitors are invited to sit on the wooden stools, observe pieces of his life, and leave a message behind in one of the many small cubbies. Lower floors offer an exhibit on the sociopolitical backdrop of the era in which these victims lived. Photographs show the mass demonstrations calling for an end to martial law, in protest of constitutional amendments, and for democratic progress. The victims, killed in the process, fueled political activity that led to the June 1987 Democratic Uprising. 

Democratic progress made since then owes an awareness and engagement with the memorial, so that victims of torture are appreciated not only for their resilience, but also for their resistance to the power structures that deny freedom and social cohesion. Visiting the Democracy and Human Rights Memorial made me think of memorials in Central Europe involving police brutality. Particularly well-known museums in Berlin and Budapest showcase these histories with very different approaches to memorialization. While the Democracy and Human Rights Memorial in Seoul memorializes victims of brutalities justified in the name of keeping communism out of the country, the House of Terror and the Stasi Museum memorialize victims of brutalities committed by the communist state against its people.

The Stasi Museum in Berlin was once the police headquarters of the secret police in East Berlin. There, the police orchestrated mass information collecting of East German citizens to intimidate, blackmail, and force the public to stay in line with the state’s tight grip over civil liberties and political activity. It was part of a restrictive framework the regime used to maintain power and control. Now open for the general public to tour, former East Berlin residents can go to review records that were kept  during that period. Our tour guide was a former staff member, who assured us that she had been unaware of the spying while she worked there. Her perspective was incredibly personal, and breathed life in a way that the well-preserved offices, filing cabinets, and corridors could not. Her perspective was access to these oral stories that are dying out with time. Someday, all that will remain will be the artifacts of spying. Ever since its opening under the care of civil rights activists in 1990, its management has been disputed between civil societies, and local and national government. Berlin, and Germany’s landscape of 20th century memorialization is operated by a similar mosaic of ownership as the country reconciles its difficult recent history.

During my long walks across Seoul’s neighborhoods, I’ve often wondered about the inaccessible alleys and disconnected side streets. The utilitarian grey rectangular apartment buildings that puncture the cityscape were constructed in an era of economic expansion at the expense of human rights between the 1970’s and 1980’s. In many ways they resemble Berlin and Budapest’s communist buildings. 

In Budapest, the House of Terror offers a very different experience for visitors. The entrance hosts a Soviet era tank greeting visitors. The informational and visual exhibits are highly curated as if walking onto a movie set. Visitors can wear police uniforms of the era, use state telephones, walk between large flags and Soviet memorabilia, and pour over hundreds of black and white images that construct a distant past. The museum’s recreated jail cells in the basement must be reached by a slow moving elevator with dim, flickering lights, and jarring music. The jail cells are meant to show the desolate conditions where detainees were held for interrogation and tortured by the State police.  It’s worth noting that the museum is run by the former chief advisor to Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban the Hungarian Prime Minister, and his leadership is marked by xenophobia, extreme far right nationalism, and revisionist historical narratives. The museum has been criticized for positioning a narrative that Hungary was only a victim of foreign invaders and not acknowledging the Hungarians who perpetuated these regimes. This critique reach even to the current administration and its manipulation of history to legitimize itself.

The architect of the anti-communist investigation division office, Kim Su Geun, was a renowed architect of his time. His works include the Jamsil Stadium, Freedom Center, and the art building at Seoul National University. While he alone didn’t design the stark and closed off cityscape of this era, his high standing and underlying state approval suggests that a particular function over form was preferred by the administration. In comparison to mid to late 19th century, France redesigned its boulevards to be wider and with smaller stones. Napoleon and Georges-Eugene Haussman designed the new roads for many reasons, including to quell the ability of revolutionaries to use the streets to their advantage. The new design allowed authorities to control the flow of people without the threat of counter blockades or road materials, such as cobblestone, being thrown at them.  With the then administration deploying its police and military forces against civil demonstrations in Korea, it seems that infrastructure would have likely been involved in these strategies. The visual imprint of development from this era is overwhelmingly bleak, overbearing, and constricted. Yet today, it’s inspiring to see one such function building reimagined to include historical dialogue as the Democracy and Human Rights Memorial.