|This black brick building next to Namyeong Station on Seoul Metro Line 1 used to be a police site used to torture student activists in the 1980s. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
By Jon Dunbar
One of the darker episodes of Korea's modern history is hidden in plain sight. Anyone taking a train south of Seoul Station, either on Line 1 or a commuter train, or driving on parallel Cheongpa-ro or Hangangdae-ro, passes by an imposing but anonymous seven-story building standing near the train tracks.
The building features sharp lines, narrow slit windows and black bricks. Its name was pronounced "dae-gong-bun-sil," which translates to "anti-communist room." This is where, in the 1970s and 80s, the Korean police brought pro-democracy activists, accused of communism, for interrogation, torture and worse.
It is in this building that police tortured student activist Park Jong-chul to death on Jan. 14, 1987. News of this triggered a massive pro-democracy protest on June 10 that year. This ultimately ended Chun Doo-hwan's military dictatorship and ushered in the Sixth Republic of Korea, introducing direct presidential elections and leading us to today.
|The Korea Times front page on Jan. 20, 1987, announces the death of student activist Park Jong-chul during police interrogation on Jan. 14 that year. / Korea Times Archive|
I first encountered this building when researching Kim Swoo-geun (1931-86), arguably Korea's most famous architect, who designed the Olympic Stadium, the U.S. Embassy and Seun Sangga, to name a few. In early 2012, the last year of the Lee Myung-bak administration, I visited all remaining Seoul buildings conceived by Kim, taking me to all corners of the city, for an article on a Korean government website.
But when I submitted it, they asked me to remove all mention of the building in Namyeong-dong. The government did not want readers to know about this site, either to cover up for past dictators or to whitewash Korea's reputation. Either way, it appalled me, but I was used to this kind of partisan censorship of my submitted work.
In those days, discourse around Korea's past human rights violations was hushed up among polite circles.
Also around that time, a group of artist-activists opened a short-lived concert space named DGBS, after an acronym of the original anti-communist room. It was an unfinished basement on the Korea National University of Arts campus in northeastern Seoul. I heard some people claiming police used to torture students in this very room, while being unaware of the actual DGBS that still stood in the same city, even though it was still standing and every Seoul resident had probably traveled past it dozens of times.
On my first visit in April 2012, the gate was closed and a sign out front claimed it was the Police Human Rights Center, whatever that means. I didn't attempt to enter, and I don't know if I would have been allowed.
Then, a Korea Times article last Dec. 27 announced the police had handed over the Namyeong-dong building to the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, which would open a proper memorial hall. I visited two days after the handover, finding the gate open. After signing in at the security office, I went inside where floors four and five had been used as a museum space.
|The interrogation room of Park Jong-chul, seen last Dec. 27 shortly after the police handed over the facility to the Ministry of Interior and Safety for reopening as a full-fledged memorial. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
It's not like visiting Seodaemun Prison, where barbaric practices are on full display. This building is modern and efficient, nicer than some active police offices I've had a chance to visit.
The fifth floor has one central well-lit hallway, and on either side are prison cells. The cells are surprisingly roomy, large enough to contain a bed, toilet facilities and a table. They are sterile in a cheery way, sort of like the color scheme you find at a public swimming pool changing room. Rooms even had bathtubs, such as the one filled with cold water Park Jong-chul had his head dunked in. One cell remains decorated with garish colors, maybe more of a reflection of the original. Another has been turned into a library with various pro-democracy books.
|The Korea Times published an illustration Jan. 20, 1987, showing the layout of the interrogation room where Park Jong-chul died from torture that year. / Korea Times Archive|
Now the original DGBS is reopened under the interior ministry, and the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (RASKB) is organizing a visit there next Tuesday at noon, led by Jun Shin, head of the RASKB Business and Culture Club. Members and nonmembers are welcome. Visit raskb.com or dhrm.or.kr for more information.