Hankyoreh 21, April 3, 2007, “Neither Japan, nor the Koreas, nor the Politically Liberated South Stop Them.”

Reporter Shin-Yoon Dong-wook: syuk@hani.co.kr

On June 29, 1939, Japanese police simultaneously arrested 33 Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses, then known as members of the Deungdaesa. The Witnesses were accused of violating the Maintenance of Public Order Act under the pretext of supporting the anti-war movement. They were also accused of lese majesty, a crime similar to treason, for their refusal to perform shrine worship. After the 1914 arrival in Korea of a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, 45 Koreans became believers and attended a 1932  convention held in Seoul.

(Photo caption: Jang Sun-ok, imprisoned under the Japanese occupation (left); Park Jong-il, imprisoned by both the South and North Korean armies (right). Tears are visible in their eyes as they relate the events of that time, a story brought to light only now.)

The fact that 33 of the 45 members were arrested in one day basically meant that the whole group was imprisoned. Additionally, this implies that the police had been well aware of their whereabouts. It didn’t happen unexpectedly. In 1933, Japanese police confiscated books published by Jehovah’s Witnesses—50,000 in Seoul and 30,000 in Pyeongyang in June and September respectively. Of course, a warning was given beforehand. In 1938, Junzo Akashi, an overseer of the Japan branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses who was also in charge of the work being done in Korea and Taiwan, informed Korean Witnesses that mass arrests were impending. At that time, Japanese police were investigating Akashi related to his own son’s military service. But neither he nor his son ran away from their problems. Finally, after Akashi’s son and other Japanese males definitively refused military service in January 1939, a series of arrests ensued throughout the countries of Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. In Korea alone the number of those imprisoned reached as high as 38 including the 33 initially arrested on June 29 [Recent research has found that the number of those arrested and detained is at least 66]. This is called the Deungdaesa Incident.

Daepodaejae—a torturous position in which the hands are shackled behind the back of one bent over, prostrate

Only one of Jehovah’s Witnesses originally imprisoned in Korea during the Japanese regime is alive today. We met this survivor, 89 year-old Jang Sun-ok, in the city of Seongnam-si in Gyeonggi-do Province. Despite respiratory difficulties she is able to provide a vivid description of what happened during that time. She was arrested at her house in Wangshimni, Seoul, on June 29, 1939. “I was preparing a meal when policemen rushed into my house,” she says. Her husband was also arrested and imprisoned for two years. Jang was married at the age of 18; at the time of her arrest, she was just 21 years old and pregnant. “I spent the first year of imprisonment in the police station, the second year under the prosecution’s indictment, the third year under preliminary examination, and the fourth and last year under trial,” she recalls. Tragically, she suffered a miscarriage due to the freezing temperatures and filthy conditions in the detention facility.

She says, “The torture I had to go through in Seodaemun Prison was the hardest thing.” Every morning they ordered Deungdaesa members to bow down toward Tokyo, where the emperor of Japan lived. If they refused they were handcuffed in the daepodaejae position. According to Jang, it was impossible to maintain that torturous position for more than one hour because the agony was enough to almost kill you. Sometimes two people were handcuffed together or shackled together by their ankles. At other times, two prisoners were confined in a solitary cell with their arms crossed and bound together behind their backs. They were forced to sleep in such a position. “People used to say that no one can survive the solitary cell. When I was sleeping at night, I thought I saw demons standing all around me, saying, ‘It’s time to give up!’ So I shouted, ‘I’m determined to stand firm even to death! Get away from me!’ I saw bloodstains on the walls of the solitary cell, and that terrified me.” This nightmarish torture continued for seven months.

It was a time of absolute terror. Of the 38 Deungdaesa members imprisoned [in Korea] by Imperial Japan, 5 died [Recent research has found that the number of those arrested and detained is at least 66]. Han Sun-gi, imprisoned at the same time as Jang Sun-ok, died in prison.

Kim Jong-sook, a female prison guard at that time who later became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said, “Han Sun-gi encouraged her son (who was also imprisoned) to remain unwavering in his faith up to the moment she took her last breath.” The late Park Ok-hui also shared heartbreaking stories about her husband, who died in September 1941 [Recent research has found that Choi Bok-su, Mrs. Park’s husband, died April 16, 1941]. “I was told to bring ₩500 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. My husband, at the age of 42, died a mere eight hours after his release.” (1988 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, “Korea”) Park did not give up her religious beliefs and was arrested for the fourth time in September 1942. She remained imprisoned until August 1945.

Firm in Their Faith Despite Severed Communications With Their Headquarters

(Caption: An artist’s depiction of daepodaejae, a torture method employed in the prisons)

Even the horror of witnessing a series of deaths failed to make Jang compromise her conviction. The Japanese prosecutor tried in vain to persuade her. Finally, Jang was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, although the prosecutor had demanded five. But after the first three years, Jang and three other Witnesses were deemed beyond rehabilitation and sent to a “protective custody” camp in Cheongju. This was a place where those who had already finished their prison sentences were held in custody for even longer. Although male Witnesses were released upon completing their sentences, these four female Witnesses were held there until the end of Japanese rule over Korea. This well demonstrates the firm resolve of these faithful women. Thus, Jang had been imprisoned for a total of six years and two months when she was finally released on August 16, 1945, just one day after Korea gained independence from Japan. Lee Jeong-sang spent a total of four years in prison and Kim Bong-nyeo spent six years in prison. But never—not once—did the Korean government inquire about the unjust hardships they experienced, let alone offer them any compensation. All the victims were left with were the serious physical aftereffects of their suffering. Mrs. Jang says, “I can’t sit up properly after lying down because of excruciating back pain.” For these women the ability to bear children came only with the passage of time because their bodies were so severely impacted by the cold and filthy environment during detention. “Whenever I recall my prison life, unspeakably strong emotions stir up inside me. It is just too painful to speak about,” says Mrs. Jang.

One Korean Witness also died in a Tokyo prison. The descendants of Ok Gye-seong, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, provide us with yet another story of torture and agony. Lee Jeong-sang is the wife of Ok’s eldest son, Ok Rye-jun; and Kim Bong-nyeo is the wife of Ok’s second son, Ok Ji-jun. The Ok brothers each spent four years in prison under the Japanese regime. Their younger brother Ok Eung-ryeon died in Tokyo’s Toyotama Prison. He had worked as a translator in Japan. His life story is included in a book about conscientious objectors published by Iwanami Shoten, Publishers. The book, Japanese Conscientious Objectors—Resistance of the Deungdaesa During the War, says: “A 24-year-old young man named Ok Eung-ryeon was severely tortured. He soon began to suffer from a mental disorder and died in prison.” Another Korean, Choi Young-won, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The same book reports, “Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses was even harsher than that of other groups in Tokyo.” One noteworthy fact is that communication between Jehovah’s Witnesses in Imperial Japan and their headquarters in the United States had been severed since 1939. But they still kept their integrity, even in isolation.

Their struggle to live according to their Christian conscience continued for the duration of the Korean War and beyond. On March 12 of this year in Anseong-si, Gyeonggi-do Province, we interviewed 77 year-old Park Jong-il, a conscientious objector to military service during the Korean War. Now silver-haired, Park told us his personal story in a vigorous youthful voice. His aunt, Park Ok-hui, suffered imprisonment under the Japanese regime, and his uncle, Choi Seong-gyu, died in prison. After his uncle died, his aunt lived with Park’s family. He himself got baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the age of 17.

“Twice I escaped being dragged away and conscripted against my will…”

Mr. Park relates: “I was born on October 22, 1930. The Military Service Act, which came into effect in October 1949, required those who were born in or after September 1930 to serve in the military. So I was required to serve.” However, Park refused to take up arms for both the South and North Korean armies. He was living in Sindang-dong, Seoul, when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Within just a few days, the North Korean army invaded the city. On the way to Seodaemun from his home, he was arrested by the North Korean army. People were lined up and after interrogation, carried off by truck to unknown destinations. At that moment he was thoroughly prepared to make a stand for his convictions. Mr. Park explains: “During World War II, like all of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I knew that on the basis of the Bible’s teachings, we were required to refuse military service.” But on that day, at the exact moment that it was finally his turn to be interrogated, someone shouted, “That’s all for today!” That was the first time he was almost dragged away and conscripted into the military. The first crisis—averted.

(Photo caption: Four women who were imprisoned until the last day of the reign of Imperial Japan stand together in this photo. From right to left: Kim Bong-nyeo, Lee Jeong-sang, Jang Sun-ok and Kim Kyeong-hee. Next to Kim Kyeong-hee are Park Ok-hui and the westerner Emerson [a missionary].)

Later in 1950 the South Korean army regained Seoul. Park, who had been hiding in his hometown of Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do Province, went to Seoul to preach. But on December 24, the Korean government announced that all residents except males of military service age should immediately vacate the city because the Chinese communist army would soon overtake it. Subject to military conscription, Park most likely would have been arrested if he had tried fleeing to the southern peninsula; soldiers were posted at strategic positions throughout the country. So he and another Witness, Cho Young-ha, hid at a home owned by a fellow worshiper. Sure enough, Seoul was retaken by the North Korean People’s Army. Two weeks later, a group of people attacked the house where he was hiding. A man wearing a fedora and a trench coat asked the householder if his son was at home. “I was so shocked.” He continues, “They ordered us to put our hands up to check whether we had any weapons.” They were most likely North Korean administrative officials who suspected Park and his friend of being stragglers from the South Korean army. They were cleared of suspicion when the North Koreans spotted the Bible and a few English-language publications scattered around the house. Park explained that on the basis of his Bible-trained Christian conscience, he could not participate in war. Because of that, he explained, he had not evacuated with all the others. Fortunately, the men left the house, saying that they would come back the next day with a person who knew about religion. Mr. Park recalls: “I thought they would either take us to North Korea or order us to become Communists and work for them in South Korea. I made up my mind to reject all such requests.” Although the North Korean officials did come back twice, they did not take the two men away. So Park and his friend remained safe in their hideaway during the three months that the North Korean army occupied Seoul.

Once the South Korean army controlled Seoul again, Park headed to Daegu to preach. But just as he was stepping off of the freight train he had been riding, the National Defense Corp arrested him. “A commissioned officer named Kwon investigated me. I told him that I would not participate in the war,” Mr. Park says. He was then taken to a garage and whipped many times. It was the custom at that time that every three or four days, a group of people would be sent to the front lines, but Park became an exception because Kwon decided to be lenient with him. Mr. Park explains, “That officer, Kwon, allowed me to sneak away from the combat zone.” So Park managed to avoid a crisis yet again—his second time avoiding forced conscription.

Nonetheless, he was not spared conscription altogether. Eventually, in June 1953, Park, then 23 years old and living in Busan, received his draft notice. He was forcibly taken to a reserve unit located in Pohang. Upon arrival he clearly stated his refusal of military service on the basis of religious convictions, but none of the soldiers would even pretend to listen to him. Because his ideology was under suspicion of being communist in nature, he was transferred to the Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) of the Korean army. Despite being threatened at gunpoint, he steadfastly refused to bear arms. He was beaten 20 times on the buttocks with a cudgel, to the point that he sustained an anal rupture; he suffered from the injury for a longtime afterward. Seeing that the beatings did not produce any results, the CIC sent him back to the Pohang Reserve Unit. Although he resolutely kept expressing his refusal of military service, the concept of conscientious objection was unheard of at that time. Therefore, it goes without saying that there would not have been a protocol for accommodating such a request even if they had wanted to.

“I was at peace even though being classified as a conscientious objector resulted in suffering assault…”

Military officials forcibly gave him a military ID number and sent him to the Jeju Training Center to enroll in a new recruit boot camp. He appealed to army officers, explaining that he could not take up arms; but instead of listening, they beat him. He thought to himself, ‘I guess they’re really going to try to force me to become a soldier.’ So as a last resort, he decided to fast in protest. The army commander got the sense of Park’s seriousness when the fast lasted more than three days. He was then taken to the army jail. “I was at peace even though being classified as a conscientious objector resulted in suffering assault.” Soldiers tried to sway him after beatings by giving him a special bath and a comfortable bed, but it was a vain attempt to get him to compromise. Eventually, he was tried in military court. The trial was of great interest not only to the chaplains but also to Lee Eung-joon, the head of the military training camp. Park was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. This was because the prosecutor demanded the full sentence on the charge of violating the National Defence Act, and the result was supported by the army general. But it was in fact no more than Park had expected. He explains, “I was given a comparatively short sentence because the decision was made after the armistice agreement was signed.” He spent three years in Youngchun Army Prison. In all likelihood Park was the first conscientious objector to military service following the formation of the Korean army. In this way his rollercoaster-like experience of conscientious objection to both North and South Korea came to an end.

Roh Byeongi-il, age 89, also barely escaped the danger of conscription by the North Korean army as a soldier. Roh hid in the Gwanak Mountains, but he was captured when smoke from his campfire eventually revealed his whereabouts. He was investigated at Bongchun Elementary School. He told his interrogators, “I serve God’s Kingdom only. I don’t want to join the political parties of any human authorities.” He was classified as a person refusing conscription, and soldiers fired shots at him. Fortunately, they were blanks. He now lives in the United States. Park has no idea of the whereabouts of his friend Choi Young-won. Choi was one of two Koreans who were imprisoned in Japan. Mr. Park, his eyes filling with tears, says, “I still wonder to this day what happened to him…” Their conscientious objection to military service was unswerving through the war and beyond. Their stance did not shift to meet the ideology of the ruling regime. Clearly, the only reason for their objection to military service was their Christian conscience.

The Ok Family’s Legacy of Suffering

This family’s history illustrates the history of suffering that all Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses have had to endure. Ok Gye-seong and Na Yong-sung, who lived in Sariwon, Hwanghae-do Province, had six children. They were Seventh Day Adventists before converting and becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses in the late 1930’s. Ok [Rye-jun], their eldest son, said in his interview: “I was disappointed when Seventh Day Adventists succumbed to shrine worship. In contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not compromise in that regard. As a result I concluded that Jehovah’s Witnesses practiced the true religion.” For Ok, a religion’s stance on shrine worship was an important factor in choosing a faith.

Three generations of the Ok family have suffered imprisonment as conscientious objectors. Under the Japanese regime, the two older sons and their wives spent 18 years in prison collectively. The third son, Ok Eung-ryeon, died a martyr in Tokyo. Once affluent factory owners in Sariwon, they had to close the factory down soon after the arrests. The Ok family initially came to South Korea before the Korean War broke out because they thought that freedom of religion would be impossible under the communist regime. They moved despite the North Korean government having given them favorable treatment for their firm stand against the Japanese regime. But life in South Korea did not provide them with any greater advantages when it came to freedom of religion.

Their ordeal seemed to have no end because their desire for freedom of conscience did not change. Ok Tae-joong, one of [Ok Gye-seong’s] grandsons, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in 1988. Baek Young-hun, grandson of Ok’s second son, Ji-jun, was arrested for alleged mutiny in 1998 and sentenced to three years in prison. Baek petitioned for the implementation of alternative service, stating: “My family’s firm stance did not cease under Japanese rule, the military regime, or even under the so-called democratic government. I do hope that the designation ‘conscientious objectors for three generations’ will not have to be applied to any other family. If I get married and have a son and he grows old enough to become a conscientious objector to military service based on his own convictions, four generations of my family will have been victimized.” As long as alternative service remains uncertain, his concern is not unfounded.

“Even an enemy is a human being and we can’t kill other humans…”

Related to the Korean Deungdaesa Incident, Mun Tae-sun definitively takes an anti-war stance

The National History Compilation Committee of 1991-1993 published a special reference, Collections 1-9, regarding the Korean Independence Movement. This reference contains the personal ID cards of Deungdaesa members detained at the time of the Incident. Also, in 1989 a book entitled The Korean Independence Movement 5: Colonization by Japan, written by Yonse University Professor of Theology Min Kyeong-bae, included a chapter regarding the Deungdaesa Incident. In this chapter the author outlines the resistance of Japanese Deungdaesa members and their persecution. It details their court testimony and states that the “brave testimony of Japanese Christians made their conscience shine like bright stars.” (p. 653) The book also says that “39 Korean and Taiwanese members were imprisoned at the same time” [Recent research has found that the number of those arrested and detained is at least 66] (p. 653), but only a passing reference is made to the Korean Deungdaesa Incident. In contrast, it relates the Japanese Deungdaesa Incident in relative detail.

The book Japanese Suppression of Korean Christianity by Murata Masahiko was published in South Korea, and in it the Japanese author gives specific details about the Korean Deungdaesa Incident. The book comments on the “definitive anti-war stance” clearly evident in statements made by the Deungdaesa leader at the time, Mun Tae-sun, and includes materials taken from police interrogation records. In those records Mun is reported as saying: “We are against war. Even if we are given a direct order from a military officer to kill an enemy soldier, that is against Jehovah’s commands, and therefore, we cannot obey. Even an enemy is a human being, and we cannot kill other humans.” (p. 84) The book also says, “The very existence of a one-god Messianic denomination with an ideology of pacifism, that was willing to confront the emperor of Japan despite the politically charged times they found themselves in, is something to take special notice of.”

© Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania 2019.

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