Incredulous of its past, the imposing grey edifice looms over a bustling street of central Seoul. It is the former anti-communism investigation division office of the police’s National Security Bureau in Namyeong-dong. Midnight disappearances, secret detentions, mass executions, and extra-judicial killings occurred with a disturbing regularity under Korea’s military dictatorship. This building was a part of this peculiar stench that perhaps still wafts through Korean society. The truth is, the torture of civilians and students were the regime’s main objective. The systemic injustices laid on the victims still prevail - that is, they were never resolved. The Argus visits this torture facility, now turned into a memorial hall for human rights and democracy, where the atrocities of the past no longer stay secret.
Seoul Station and Yongsan Station: between these vibrant transportation hubs humbly lays Namyeong Station, where The reporters’ journey started. The station’s only exit led to a neighborhood riddled with hotels. There stood among them a dark, seven-storied, “L”-shaped structure, surrounded by barbed wire and unwelcoming walls. It was labeled, “Memorial Hall for Human Rights and Democracy.” Not far off, the reporters could clearly hear the trains busily heading to their next destination. How could ordinary life and the screams of the tortured coexist in such close quarters for such a long time?
The reporters entered the steel gates and found themselves in front of the security box. Visiting the building and its grounds required registering either online or on-site. Signing in, the reporters could not help but notice the displays showing CCTV footage-a striking reminder of the 24-hour surveillance of the torture victims.
Walking out to the courtyard in front of the imposing structure, the reporters were greeted by the 56-year-old tour guide Koo Kwang-sook. Eagerly, the guide began introducing the building, “The Anti-communism Investigation Division Office was built, originally as a five-story building in 1976, specifically for cases dealing with communism...” The guide and the reporters sauntered the grounds of the compound.
While communism was a definite threat in South Korea following the Korean War, the military dictatorship learned to use the fear of communism to legitimize their power. This manifests in the building’s design. “The building was commissioned to renowned architect Kim Swoo-geun by the Ministry of Home Affairs. It was meticulously designed to provide the best working environment for the policemen working here, as well as facilitate indescribable forms of emotional, psychological, and physical torture,” explained Koo. Across the courtyard from the building, there was a clearing, about the size of a soccer field.
“You may have noticed on our way here that there is nothing out of the ordinary. Does it not feel like a great place to relax?” asked the guide. The greenery covering the compound provided plenty of shade and the courtyard was easy on the eyes. “This place was originally a tennis court,” pointed out the guide, “It was designed for the policemen of the anti-communism division and other administrative staff. This peaceful mood was in stark contrast to the torture that went on inside.”
The institute’s plot of land directly neighbors Namyeong Station. The reporters could hear the constant stall and chug of the trains that passed by. As the guide led the reporters to the wall that divided the compounds and the station, she pointed out, “The windowless walls are there to prevent the sound from entering the compound. The prisoners who were located on the fifth floor at the other side of the building would only hear the distant howls of the trains, which were a source of psychological terror.”
At the corner of the “L”-shaped structure, there was a path that cut through the building. It was a sunny early summer day, but there was a windy chill. Ms. Koo said, “The structure was designed to focus the wind to this little alleyway here. In the summer, the policemen would come out here to enjoy a cigarette and chat with their colleagues. However, in the winter, prisoners were brought here to be asked riling questions as the blast of winter wind beat at their faces.”
Through the walkway, the reporters were back at the starting location of the tour. In front of the building, the reporters met 27-year-old Rak Yun-kyeong, who studies Architecture at Kangwon National University. Regarding the structure, he commented, “This place was designed to be perfect for torture. I believe the architect committed a huge sin against society by building such a horror. In the future, I hope the building is used to truly fulfill democracy. Personally, it is horrendous to see something so out of the ordinary placed amid the ordinary.”
“Before we go in, take a look at the fifth floor of the building,” recommended the guide. The fifth-floor windows were extremely slim, as opposed to the rest of the building, which had large windows. “The windows belong to the torture rooms located on that floor. The building’s width incrementally increases as the floors go up - a strategic design to make the observer feel as if the building is towering over them. What is more, the windows on the backside of the structure are narrow and few. The neighboring building facing that side was Lotte’s head office in the 1970’s. The narrow windows kept curious eyes from getting a better look.”
Hereafter, the guide led the way up the steps to the first floor of the building, where there was a gallery showing the structure’s history.
Between the gallery and the set of stairs, there was a large door and a small elevator. The tour guide chimed in, “This door was a divide between the area for the police and the victims. For the victims imprisoned in these buildings, there was a small back entrance, hidden from plain sight.” The reporters asked, “Why was this?”
“In this building, there were not only anti-communism agents, but also administrative police who did not get involved in the interrogations,” answered the guide, “For security reasons, the space had to be sealed off. In the area where the gallery is now situated, the administrative police would go about their everyday tasks. Coming into the building, you may have noticed a normal set of stairs and a larger elevator. This was used by the people who worked in the building. The small elevator and spiraling staircase you see here were designated for the ‘suspects.’
“These stairs lead directly to the fifth floor,” Koo pointed out, “They say it befuddled the victim’s sense of height, further building up fear. Normally, interrogation rooms in the other anti-communism division offices were underground, separated from the outside. On this premise, they were unusually located on the fifth floor. The architect, by designing this narrow, twister-shaped staircase, used height to create terror.”
By just viewing the space, the reporters could paint a picture in their heads:
The handcuffed torture victim’s head is covered in cloth. He hears and shrinks at what seems to be a tank rolling by. It is the sound of a monstrous iron door, so large that it needs to be opened by motor. He is brought into the compound in a van which comes to an abrupt stop, about five meters away from the small backdoor. The policemen violently handle the victim and bring him through the door, which he barely fits through. Then, the climb up to the spiraling staircase begins.
Meanwhile, the police in the building go about their business on the other side of the wall, apathetic to whatever is going on beyond the walls and beyond their working area. Why would they? Their job has a nice balance between work and recreation.
Knowing this, the path to the torture chambers was chilling. “As the torture victims would climb closer to the fifth floor, they would hear the frightening shouts of the interrogators above, all the while losing their sense of direction as they went round and round up the stairs,” commented the guide. Every step made a clatter against the metal steps, which looked not even a foot long. There was no way to tell which floor it was, and the only light came from a few thin windows. To the disheveled victim, with not a soul in the world at his side, the end of this staircase to hell would merely be the start of the “interrogations.”
At the end was a door that opened perpendicularly into a narrow hallway. It was in these very halls where the martyred democracy activist Bak Jong-cheol and deceased politician and democracy activist Kim Geun-tae were once tortured. The doors were placed diagonally from each other. When the door was open, the person inside would only see a wall.
In the unlighted halls, it was difficult to tell whether it was night or day. The light controls were all outside the rooms. Between the switches, there was a light brightness control, not just for turning the lights on and off but intended to be psychological devices that distort the prisoner’s sense of day and time. On the green-painted doors, there were peepholes that looked outside in, most certainly installed for surveillance.
“Did you notice the dark panel horizontally lining the wall in every room?” asked the guide, “They were 24-hour surveillance cameras. The divides, originally low, exposed even the toilet area.”
Most rooms were not even 10 square meters in size. Inside them, there were toilets and faucets all in pristine working conditions. “Surprising as it may be, during renovations in 2002, all the bathtubs inside the rooms were removed and the dividers covering the toilet area were replaced with taller ones. It was almost as if the police were implying their focus on human rights by covering up their trails.”
Out of the narrow windows, the prisoners would have only seen the sky. In this room, the only other person would be the police agent. The opaque window severed the prisoner from the rest of the world, and its narrowness kept them from jumping out to commit suicide.
“The soundproof walls were also not completely soundproof. They carried the sounds of the prisoner’s screams and moans throughout the entire floor. Even when a prisoner was being rested up for the next torture, they would constantly be in fear, unable to sleep or rest.
“People who came to this facility were severely scarred when they left, if they ever left. They were tortured to the point where they would reveal the names of their companions, often driving them into unspeakable guilt,” said the tour guide sadly, as she led the reporters to the next area.
Walking down to the end of the narrow corridor, the reporters came across Room 515. The room held an exhibit in remembrance of the late politician and human rights activist, Kim Geun-tae. Larger than the other rooms, this room was one of the only two that could fit the electric torture device. The interrogation officers used this machine profusely on Mr. Kim. After surviving, he went on to actively lead the movement against human rights violations the rest of his life.
The room had a display of books Kim would read to stave off his time as a prisoner, some of his memorabilia, and a towel stained with blood used during his torture. There was a screen playing a video of Mr. Kim’s life on repeat. A middle-aged couple were solemnly viewing the screen. “What brings you here?” the reporters asked.
“We are here because we were part of this generation,” answered the woman. “In that era, all the students gathered. It was more a rally than a protest,” added the man, reminiscing. The reporters asked if they had anything to say to the HUFSans.
“I hope students today realize that these events are not in the past, but directly affect their lives. The younger generation struggles to adjust to the imperfect society we built. Truly, it is our fault, and we hope you embrace a vision for the future,” the man reflected pensively. The reporters thanked the couple, as they went on to view the rest of the room.
In the corner, there was a shelf where visitors could place letters to the deceased freedom fighter. The reporters each wrote a message of thanks and remembrance. The reporters placed their message rolls and respectfully left the memorial.
Stepping out, the reporters reached another interrogation room that holds the fatal case of Jan. 14, 1987. There was a bath there, probably used for water torture. According to the initial police report, 23-year-old Bak, a linguistics student in Seoul National University was claimed to have fallen dead after the investigator slammed the desk with his fist. It was only after a doctor, a prosecutor, a reporter of Joongang Ilbo, a priest, and a mass of others came forward did the lie get nailed to the counter.
Enveloped by memorabilia, this room was the only one that had not been remodeled. In order to prevent damages, visitors could only view the room through a protective glass. A portrait of Bak sat on the wall above the bathtub, next to which were a urinal and toilet. White flowers decorated the adjacent tiles. This was all surrounded by a low orange brick divide. Though equipped with a bed and desk, bathroom fixtures occupied over half of the room.
Ms. Koo threw a question, “Quite fancy for a torture chamber, no?” The reporters wondered, surprised that the prisoners of the 80s had stone bathtubs of their own. At that time, only the rich could enjoy such luxury. “Once this nightmare of an interrogation began, for an average of twenty to thirty days, the prosecuted were not allowed to step out of their assigned areas. Their meals, bodily business, sleeping, and all kinds of torture happened here. It would persist until they admitted to the fictitious story of being a North Korean infiltrator,” illustrated Koo.
On closer inspection of the room, the reporters noticed that every object was bolted to the floor. These were installed to prevent self-harm. The officers turned every object in the room into an instrument of torture. The interrogating officer would lay on the bed, to provoke the sleep-deprived victim, and order them to draw up a report. As the tired victim would doze off, the interrogator would stab the prisoner under their fingernails with a pen or drop it on the desk. It is said that the drop felt like a sudden clap of horrifying thunder.
Shocked, the reporters went down to the fourth floor, where situated the Bak Jong-cheol memorial hall. The hall was full of displays containing newspapers from the 80’s and the letters Bak exchanged with his family as a son, brother, and boy. One of the letters to his sister read, “I heard you’re studying to get into college again this year. If you don’t even score 100 points less than what I scored, don’t even think about calling me family. I’m going to disown you!” The reporters realized that, besides his title as a martyr, he was just a good-natured college student.
“We mourn and remember Bak Jong-cheol in these halls, but take a moment to think about the institutional use of torture that brought an end to his life. In the mid-1980s, if it were not Bak who was sacrificed, there would have been another ‘Bak Jong-cheol.’ This is the significance. It was not because Bak was special, but because Bak was like you and me,” Koo added. “Martyr” and “sacrifice” may seem like very distant concepts, but it comes as a shock when these labels are put on individuals not much different from the ordinary person.
Exiting the gallery and going down the stairs, there were placards on the wall, each one containing one of the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The reporters could not help but notice Article 5:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
And with this, the tour of the infamous torture machine came to an end.
What you read here is not a small facet of our modern history. It is one of the key pillars that constitute the foundations of our free society. Along with Bak Jong-cheol and Kim Geun-tae, people who were tortured here are revolutionaries who gave up their blood, sweat and tears hoping Korea would see a better tomorrow. It is now that tomorrow, and what do we see? Are we on the path these pioneers of democracy and freedom paved out for us? Or are we complacent in our individual worlds, only worrying about what’s “mine?”
The history of the democratic movement in Korea is by no means distant. The freedom fighters of yesterday are still active members of society today. Let us not let their sacrifice dissolve into the swirls of history but become a light that tells us that there is a greater good to fight for.
By Kwak Hyun-jeong and Park Chang-hwan
Staff Reporters of Theory & Critique Section