Living Through Dramatic Changes in Korea

As told by Chong-il Park

“Coward! You are afraid of dying at the front lines. You are trying to evade military service on the pretense of your religious conscience.” That was the accusation of the captain of the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) when I stood before him in June 1953, over 55 years ago.

THIS occurred during the Korean War. The captain then pulled out a pistol and laid it on his desk. “Now, I will let you die here instead of at the front lines,” he said. “Do you have any second thoughts?”

“No,” I answered firmly. At that, the captain ordered an officer to make preparation for my execution.

I was in this situation because I had been drafted but had refused to serve in the military. As we waited, I told the captain that I had already dedicated my life to God, so I believed it would be wrong to sacrifice it in any cause other than God’s service. Then a few minutes passed in silence. Shortly, the officer returned and reported that everything was ready for my execution.

Most people in South Korea at the time knew little if anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses, let alone our conscientious objection to participation in the military action of any government. Before I describe what happened next, let me explain how I had arrived at the decision I expressed to the military captain.

My Early Life

I was born in October 1930, the first son of a family in a town near Seoul, then the capital of Korea. My grandfather was a devout follower of Confucius, and he trained me to be one too. He opposed my receiving a secular education, so I did not attend school until after he died, when I was ten. Then, in 1941, Japan and the United States entered World War II on opposing sides.

Since Korea was under Japanese rule, each morning we students had to participate in a ceremony to honor the Japanese emperor. My aunt and uncle had become Jehovah’s Witnesses and were imprisoned in Korea during World War II because, based on their religious convictions, they refused to become involved in wartime efforts. The treatment of the Witnesses by the Japanese was so cruel that some of them died, including my uncle. Later my aunt stayed with our family.

Korea was liberated from Japanese control in 1945. With the help of my aunt and other Witnesses who had survived imprisonment, I began a serious study of the Bible and was  baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1947. In August 1949, Don and Earlene Steele, the first of the missionaries trained at the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead to be assigned to Korea, arrived in Seoul. Within several months they were followed by others.

On January 1, 1950, I along with three other Koreans began serving as a pioneer, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. We were the first in Korea to become pioneers after World War II.

Life During the Korean War

Soon afterward, war broke out between North Korea and South Korea on Sunday, June 25, 1950. At the time, all of Korea had only one congregation of Witnesses, made up of 61 of us in Seoul. The U.S. Embassy required all of the missionaries to leave the country for their own safety. Most local Witnesses also left Seoul and scattered throughout the southern part of the country.

The South Korean government, however, prevented young men of draft age like me from leaving Seoul. Suddenly, Communist troops marched into the city and Seoul came under Communist military control. Even during that time, when I had to hide in a small room for three months, I was able to witness to people about God’s Kingdom. For instance, I met a schoolteacher who was also hiding from the Communists. He ended up staying with me, and I had a Bible study with him every day. In time, he was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Communist officials from North Korea eventually found us at our hiding place. We identified ourselves as Bible students and explained the Bible teaching of God’s Kingdom to them. To our surprise, they did not arrest us but, instead, showed interest in the Bible message. In fact, some of them even came back a few times and wanted to hear more about God’s Kingdom. This experience strengthened our faith in Jehovah’s protection.

After UN forces reoccupied Seoul, I received special permission to travel to the city of Taegu in March 1951. There I was able to enjoy preaching with fellow Witnesses for several months. Then, in November 1951, before the war ended, Don Steele returned to Korea.

I assisted him in reorganizing our preaching work. The Watchtower, as well as the Informant​—which provided instructions to Witnesses for carrying on the preaching work—​had to be translated into Korean, typed, and mimeographed. This material was sent to congregations, which by then existed in various cities. Occasionally Don and I traveled together, visiting congregations to encourage them.

In January 1953, I was thrilled to receive a letter inviting me to Gilead School in New York for missionary training. After my flight reservation was made, however, I received a notice from a Korean government office, requiring that I report for military service.

My Life-or-Death Situation

At the recruiting center, I explained to an officer my neutral stand and my objection to military service. At that he turned me over to the CIC to determine if I was a Communist. That is when I faced the life-or-death situation mentioned earlier. But instead of  shooting me, the captain abruptly stood up, handed a thick wooden bar to an officer, and ordered him to beat me. Even though the pain was excruciating, I was happy that I was able to endure it.

The CIC sent me back to the recruiting center, where the officers, ignoring my beliefs, arbitrarily assigned me a military ID number, and transferred me to the military training center on Cheju island, near mainland Korea. The next morning the new recruits, including me, were scheduled to take the oath to become soldiers. I refused to do so. As a result, I was court-martialed and sent to prison for three years.

Thousands Maintain Integrity

The day that I would have left for my missionary training, I saw a plane flying overhead. It was the flight I had been scheduled to take. Rather than being heartbroken because I could not go to Gilead, I was deeply satisfied that I was keeping my integrity to Jehovah. And I am not the only Korean Witness who has refused military service. In fact, more than 13,000 other Witnesses in succeeding years have taken a similar stand. They have served a total of more than 26,000 years in Korean prisons.

After serving two years of my three-year prison sentence, I was pardoned in 1955 as an exemplary prisoner and released. I resumed my full-time ministry. Later, in October 1956, I received an assignment to serve at the offices of Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea. Then, in 1958, I was again invited to Gilead. At my graduation I was assigned back to Korea.

Sometime after returning to Korea, I met In-hyun Sung, a faithful Witness, and we were married in May 1962. She had grown up in a Buddhist family and had learned about the Witnesses from a classmate. For the first three years of our marriage, we visited a different congregation in Korea each week with the goal of strengthening its members spiritually. Since 1965 we have worked at the Witnesses’ branch office, now located about 40 miles [60 km] from Seoul.

Reflections Regarding Changes

As I look back, I am amazed to see how much has changed in this country. After the second world war and the war with North Korea, South Korea was reduced to little more than rubble. Cities and roads lay in ruins. Electricity and heat were sporadic at best. And the economy was in shambles. In the ensuing 50 years, South Korea has made a remarkable recovery.

Today South Korea boasts the 11th-largest economy in the world. It is renowned for its modern cities, high-speed railway system, electronics, and auto manufacturing acumen. South Korea now ranks as the world’s fifth-largest car manufacturing country. But of special significance to me are the strides made in South Korea respecting the human rights of South Korea’s citizens.

When I was court-martialed in 1953, the Korean government did not understand the concept of conscientious objection. Some of us were accused of being Communists, and a few of our fellow Witnesses were beaten to death. Many who were imprisoned as conscientious objectors when they were young men have seen their sons, and even their grandsons, go to prison for the same reason.

In the last several years, the media has given generally favorable coverage to incidents  involving the conscientious objection of Jehovah’s Witnesses to participation in the military affairs of any country. One lawyer who had prosecuted a Witness conscientious objector even wrote an open letter of apology for what he had done, and it was published in a well-known magazine.

I hope that our right of conscientious objection will be respected in South Korea as it is in many other countries. I pray that authorities of South Korea will accommodate individuals who have convictions like mine and end the practice of sending young conscientious objectors to prison, “in order that we may go on leading a calm and quiet life.”​—1 Tim. 2:1, 2.

As servants of our God, Jehovah, we treasure the opportunity to uphold his right to be our Ruler. (Acts 5:29) Our wholehearted desire is to make his heart rejoice as a result of our faithfulness to him. (Proverbs 27:11) I am happy that I am among the millions who have chosen to ‘trust in Jehovah with all our heart and not lean upon our own understanding.’​—Proverbs 3:5, 6.

[Blurb on page 13]

“To our surprise, they did not arrest us but, instead, showed interest in the Bible message”

[Blurb on page 14]

Korean Witnesses have spent 26,000 years in prison for refusing military service

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In military prison, 1953

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Visiting congregations with Don Steele during the war, 1952

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Before our wedding, 1961

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Helping as a traveling overseer’s interpreter, 1956

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With In-hyun Sung today