In imitation of Nazi Germany, Imperial
Japan began to focus its attention on the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses,
then known as the Deungdaesa, because the group’s members refused to
participate in emperor worship and military service.

Arrests of Deungdaesa members in Japan began in the spring of 1933. That June and August, Imperial Japan seized and burned tens of thousands of Deungdaesa publications in Korea (then known as Chosun).

“…arrests of Deungdaesa members in Japan resulted from a joint policy adopted by Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan.”

In June 1939, three Deungdaesa members who refused military service in Japan were imprisoned.

To prevent imitation of this courageous example and further refusal of military conscription, Japanese police launched a major operation against the Deungdaesa.

In June 1939, Japanese police acted on their thorough investigation of the Deungdaesa organization with the goal of arresting all Deungdaesa members throughout the Korean Peninsula.

The police tracked Jehovah’s Witnesses by their addresses and their involvement in the ministry.

“Under the current situation, we can never allow this kind of organization to exist, not even for a day.”

Under the direction of Japanese police, authorities in Korea began arresting Deungdaesa members on June 29, 1939 at 5:00 a.m. 

“While I was preparing breakfast in the early morning of June 29,

two detectives came and inquired about a person named Jang Sun-ok. When I replied, ‘That’s me,’

they took me away. I was detained on June 29, 1939 and not set free again until August 16, 1945.” 

Jang, (1918-2012)

The arrests continued until 1941. 

At least 66 were arrested in Korea, including 47 members of the Deungdaesa and others who also refused to join in emperor worship and the military draft.

The widened geographical scope of arrests in 1939

The legal premise for the trial was the Deungdaesa members’ alleged violation of the Maintenance of Public Order Act.

This law was enacted in 1925.

 The purpose of the law was to control people whose ideology was contrary to the Japanese method of governance.

“Those who join an organization whose purpose is to overthrow the political system, while being cognizant of that purpose, or who actively work to fulfill the purpose of said organization will be sentenced to more than three years of imprisonment”
—Maintenance of Public Order Act, Clause 1.

Gonoe, et al.

        Having the purpose of overthrowing the political system

Definition> Any activities or organizations opposing the foundation of the Japanese political system, in which “the emperor rules the world as a living god.”     

Offense> Refusal to participate in emperor worship or military activities.

       Questions that the Imperial Japanese police repeatedly used during interrogations


-Who reigns over the Empire of Japan?

-Have you ever participated in Shinto shrine worship?

-If there is a conflict between the command of the emperor and that of God, whom will you obey?

Seo Byeong-in

Q: “What do you think about worshipping at a Shinto shrine?”

A: “…they are man-made idols.”

Chosun Dongdaemun Precinct,
June 28, 1940

Lee Jeong-sang

Q: “Are you in absolute subjection to God’s commands [not to the emperor’s]?”

A: “…We must obey God rather than men.”

Chosun Dongdaemun Precinct,
December 9, 1940

Ok Ji-jun

Q: “What are your thoughts on the Sino-Japanese War?”

A: “I cannot obey the emperor’s command to kill others.”

Chosun Gyeonggi-do Precinct,
September 26, 1939

     Joining an Organization While Being Cognizant of its Purpose or Actively Working to Fulfill the Purpose of Said Organization

Definition> One who becomes a member of such an organization with full knowledge 

of the nature of its identity or one who participates in the activities of such an organization.    

Offense> Becoming a member of the Deungdaesa after studying its publications and thereafter distributing said publications.

Magazine subscribers, June 1939
Magazine subscribers total 441.
Precinct Chief of Gyeonggi-do, pp. 3-41

-Sentencing would be based on the nature of the Deungdaesa’s activities. Therefore, a thorough investigation was conducted.

-Regular monthly subscribers to the magazine Consolation* were investigated thoroughly by the police because they themselves evidenced the Deungdaesa’s activities and could become future members of the organization.

-In 1939 there were 15 times more publication subscribers than actual Deungdaesa members.

*The magazine Consolation was later renamed Awake!

Detained for five years
and nine months

Kim Seong-nyeo

“As soon as I was baptized, I started serving as a pioneer [full-time preacher], and beginning in January 1934, I started distributing the publications of the Deungdaesa in Incheon, Suwon, Gyeong-seong in Gyeonggi-do, Yeonbaek, Haeju in Hwanghae-do, Chuncheon, Cheolwon, Gangneung, Samcheok, Goseong, Tongcheon, Pyeonggang in Gangwon-do, Busan, Masan, Jinju, Daegu, Gimhae in Gyeongsang-do, Jeonju, Gunsan, Iri in Jeolla-do, Gongju, Nonsan, Anggyeong, Daejeon, Jochiwon, Asan in Chungcheong-do, Pyeongyang, Jinnampo, Gangseo, Suncheon, Anju, Shinyiju, Parkcheon, Ryonggang, Seoncheon in Pyeongan-do, Andong, Mokdangang, Ryongjeong, Yeongil, and Gamoksa in Manju.”

Chosun, Dongdaemun Precinct, November 6, 1940

Thirty people were arrested in 1939. They underwent interrogations during a three-year incarceration period,
after which they were brought to trial.

Despite being held in police custody for three years, only 400 days of that period were counted and deducted from the prison sentences. As a result, detainees had two years on average added to their actual sentences.

Four people appealed the ruling of their joint trial, but their case was dismissed.

After they completed their sentences, they were reincarcerated.

Police interrogated the detainees daily.

“The police officer said, ‘Since you’re not a criminal, if you simply renounce your faith you can be released.’
They were instructed by the Tokyo National Police Agency to keep me there and continue interrogations to see whether or not I would recant.”

Detained for five years and six months

Jang Sun-ok

Q: How many times were you interrogated during the first year of your incarceration in police custody?

Jang: Every single day they called me out of my cell and tormented me, asking if I had changed my mind.

Q: Every day for an entire year?

Jang: Yes, every single day I was interrogated.

Q: Didn’t the interrogations end once you were transferred to Seodaemun Prison? And why did they keep you incarcerated for one year?

Jang: The police officer said, “Since you’re not a criminal, if you simply renounce your faith you can be released.” They were instructed by the Tokyo National Police Agency to keep me there and continue interrogations to see whether or not I would recant.

Jang, (1918-2012)

After being transferred to Seodaemun Prison, members of the Deungdaesa were pressured to perform emperor worship.

(Asahi Shimbun)
(Governor-General of Chosun)
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Upon refusal they were repeatedly tortured and subjected to punitive measures.

"Because I steadfastly refused to perform [emperor worship], I was put into a torturous position called daepodaejae. Since that didn't break my resolve, I was handcuffed to another prisoner with our arms entwined and continually left like that to suffer."

'Thirty million Koreans have bowed down to the imperial palace, why won’t you…?'
Jang, (1918-2012)


After the first arrests on June 29, 1939, six Deungdaesa members died while imprisoned.


May 29, 1940, Choi Jae-hyeong (22, male)
Cause of death: acute pneumonia


April 16, 1941, Choi Bok-su (42, male)
Cause of death: pulmonary tuberculosis


Soon after July 14, 1942, Han Sun-gi (52, female)
Cause of death: exudative pleuritis
Soon after July 14, 1942,
Kim Gyu-ok (47, female)
Cause of death: chronic nephritis
Soon after July 25, 1942,
Mun Tae-sun (45, male)
Cause of death: unknown

Ok Eung-ryeon (21, male) in Toyotama Prison, Tokyo,
while serving a four-year prison sentence.
Cause of death: unknown

Choi Bok-su, 42
Mun Tae-sun, 45
Han Sun-gi, 52

“My husband, at the age of 42, died eight hours
after his release from prison.”


1988 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 152

One of Those Who Died in Prison: Choi Bok-su

  • 1899—Born in Mokpo, Jeollanam-do 
  • 1928—Studied traditional medicine at Cheongjin-dong, Gyeongseong 
  • 1936—Conducted comparative study of traditional and Western medicine 
  • 1938—Worked part-time as a medical science instructor in Gyeonggi-do 
  • 1938—Baptized as a Deungdaesa member, in May

Q: Why did you become a member of the Deungdaesa?

A: “While studying traditional medicine and treating people…, I started to have serious questions about the nature of life and death. I searched for meaningful answers within religious and philosophical texts without success. Through the pages of the Bible-based publications provided by the Deungdaesa, I learned the truth about the condition of the dead and even gained a real hope of resurrection after death.” 

Chosun Gyeonggi-do Precinct, June 4, 1940


He was arrested on June 29, 1939, and his brother-in-law sent a
lawyer to help. 



His wife related: “My brother-in-law worked for the Japanese government and sent a lawyer in the hope of securing a release from prison for my husband. But the lawyer stated that the only way for him to gain freedom was to worship at the Shinto shrine. My husband rejected his offer immediately and refused any future visits from him as well.” (1988 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 152)

He applied for bail on April 8, 1941 and was released from prison on April 15, 1941.

He died early the next morning, eight hours after being released. 

“I received notification that my husband would be released from prison shortly. I was told to bring 500 [more than a year’s wage] and come fetch him. I borrowed the money and went to Seodaemun Prison. Arriving on a dark melancholy night, I found my husband prone on the ground, covered with a white sheet, more dead than alive. Having imprisoned him for over two years and rendered him virtually lifeless, they now wanted me to pay them 500 to release him in this condition! My husband, at the age of 42, died a mere eight hours after his release from prison.” (1988 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 152)

Park Ok-hui

(1901-1996), Detained for three years

Four of the imprisoned women (pictured from
right to left below) decided to appeal the July 14, 1942 court ruling that deemed
them beyond rehabilitation.

According to detention laws, such a ruling meant being detained once again, despite the fact that they had already completed prison sentences. They were sent to prison once more at the “protective custody” camp in Cheongju.

They were detained there until August 16, 1945, the day after Japan lost the war.

From left to right: Evalyn Emerson, a Jehovah’s Witness missionary in Korea; Park Ok-hui (1901-1996), detained for three years; Kim Seong-nyeo (1895-1972), detained for five years and nine months; Jang Sun-ok (1918-2012), detained for five years and six months; Lee Jeong-sang (1911-1977), detained for five years; and Kim Bong-nyeo (1919-1994), detained for five years. The latter four appealed the verdict against them.

Beginning in the early 2000’s, media coverage and news broadcasts began to shed new light on the Deungdaesa Incident as well as the subsequent treatment of conscientious objectors in South Korea.

"I Cannot Bear the Thought
of Taking-Up Arms"

"Neither Japan, nor the Koreas, nor the Politically Liberated South Stop Them"

36,700 Years of Tears

A series of new rulings on conscientious objection followed this media coverage.

2002 A trial court judge filed the first request made by a conscientious objector for adjudication on the constitutionality of conscientious objection.

2004 A trial court rendered the first not guilty verdict in the case of a conscientious objector.

2005 The National Human Rights Committee recommended that the Korean government recognize the legality of conscientious objection.

2006 The UN made a recommendation urging protection of the rights of conscientious objectors.

2007 The Ministry of National Defense promoted the introduction of alternative services.

2011, 2012 The UN made recommendations again urging protection of the rights of conscientious objectors.

2012 The National Human Rights Committee again recommended that the Korean government recognize the legality of conscientious objection.

June 28, 2018 The Constitutional Court of Korea ruled that a provision of Korea’s Military Service Act (MSA) was unconstitutional.

November 1, 2018 South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that conscientious objection is related to freedom of conscience.

September 2019 The Seodaemun Prison History Hall featured a special exhibition commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Deungdaesa Incident.

November 2019 The Busan National Memorial Museum of Forced Mobilization Under Japanese Occupation featured the special exhibition.

"I will never change my faith, even in the face of death."
—Ok Ji-jun (1912-2000) during an interrogation by the Gyeonggi-do Police District, 1939.
“Even if I have to suffer all the same hardships my grandfather experienced, I will never compromise my conscience.”
—Ok Gyu-bin (1995-), Ok Ji-jun’s grandson, before the Constitutional Court, 2017.
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© Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania 2019.

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