Busan Ilbo, November 12, 2019, “Special Exhibition Opens in Busan to Commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Deungdaesa Incident, the Nation’s First Case of Conscientious Objection”
Trial documents and other materials are being exhibited at the National Memorial Museum of Forced Mobilization Under Japanese Occupation, Busan.
Four generations were imprisoned for a collective 28 years because of their conscientious objection.
A special exhibition will be held in Busan to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Deungdaesa Incident, Korea’s first case of conscientious objection.
The South Korea branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses held a press conference in the 6th floor multimedia room of the National Memorial Museum of Forced Mobilization Under Japanese Occupation, located in Nam-gu, Busan, on September 12. The spokesman said the branch will hold an exhibition—Changing History, Unchanging Conscience—in the Special Exhibition Room from that afternoon until December 13, during which time Deungdaesa Incident records such as trial documents will be accessible to the public.
The Deungdaesa Incident refers to the series of historical events leading up to the arrest and persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The premise for the arrests was their refusal to participate in emperor worship and military activities. Those actions violated the Sedition Act and the lese majesty law in effect during June 1939 under Japanese occupation. Deungdaesa was a term used to identify the legal entity of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the organization now known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
The Imperial Japanese government convicted at least 66 people and arrested all of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Korean Peninsula back then. Without recanting they served long prison sentences until they were released with the liberation of Korea. The average prison term was four and a half years; six of the Witnesses died in prison. This incident has been recorded as Korea’s first case of conscientious objection and the first resistance movement against Japanese occupation.
Six thousand pages of trial documents, stored to this point by the National Institute of Korean History (the National History Compilation Committee), will be introduced to the public during the Busan exhibition. Also, the history of the Deungdaesa Incident will be recounted in its entirety, beginning to end. It will include the stories of individuals who were tormented and subsequently died in prison for refusing to worship the Japanese emperor, details about Deungdaesa members and their roles during the period of Japanese occupation, the organizational chart of the Deungdaesa with the list of members arrested, and reports detailing the interrogations of the defendants for their conscientious objection—all this will be made open to the public.
Exhibited materials include the story of Jang Sun-ok, imprisoned for five years and five months and tortured in the Seodaemun Prison for her persistent refusal to bow down toward the east where the palace of the Japanese emperor was. Visitors will also learn about Ok Gye-seong’s family story, how four generations in the family were imprisoned for a total of 28 years collectively for their conscientious objection.
Ok’s first and second sons were imprisoned for their refusal to bow to shrines and to perform military service. His third son died in prison in Japan. After the liberation, their descendants were subject to criminal punishment for refusing to perform military service.
Ok Gyu-bin, Ok’s great-grandson who resides in Sasang-gu Busan, has been waiting for alternative civilian service since the Supreme Court ruled in November 2018 that conscientious objection is justifiable. He refused to participate in military service in 2016.
At the press conference, he explained: “I declared conscientious objection because I wanted to stand firm for my religious convictions and to practice true Christian love for others as my grandfather did. The most important reason is that the Bible repeatedly emphasizes the importance of Christian love.”
He went on to say: “I’m so grateful that alternative civilian service is being discussed in depth. Similar provisions have already been well established in many other countries. I will put forth all my effort to perform such service if the Korean government adopts it on a civilian level. I have been eagerly awaiting the day when, once again, I can be regarded as a member of society and not as a criminal.”
Han Hong-gu, a historian and a professor at SungKongHoe University, said: “I used to be prejudiced against Jehovah’s Witnesses for being weird people who neither accept blood transfusions nor salute the flag. It wasn’t until the 2000’s that I started to take a closer look at them because of the issue of conscientious objection.” He pointed out: “Many people say it is still premature to introduce an alternative service system in a politically divided nation. Yet, three generations of Jehovah’s Witnesses went to prison not only during the Japanese colonial period but also during the period of military dictatorship. We should change this situation now under a democratic regime, should we not?”
With regard to the Deungdaesa Incident, Professor Han remarked that it is amazing that all the members who were arrested did not recant. Even in the history of the socialist movement, among the numerous people imprisoned, only about 20 people refused to recant.
He also criticized the alternative service system, currently being legislated, saying: “As I have been watching the scene unfold, I’ve been getting angry. The alternative service system should be introduced properly. However, it still has a punitive characteristic.”
He added: “As I look back, I have come to realize that it is Jehovah’s Witnesses who have put into practice most thoroughly the freedom of conscience guaranteed in the Constitution. No one can deny it. As a citizen of Korea, I express my profound respect for them.”
There were 937 pending court cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses accused of violating the Military Service Act before the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that conscientious objection is justifiable. Since that ruling, not guilty decisions have been handed down to Jehovah’s Witnesses put on trial. The total number of Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been imprisoned for violation of the Military Service Act since the Korean War is 19,350.
The exhibition of the Deungdaesa Incident was held in the Seoul Seodaemun Prison History Hall last September. According to statistics provided by Jehovah’s Witnesses, a total of 51,175 people, including 5,700 international tourists, visited this exhibition.