Thought Crime Arrests 1928-1944

I spent a beautiful Saturday hanging with the old folks in 효창공원 near my place. This small park is full of interesting things including an anti-Communist memorial, the graves of various nationalist heroes, and includes the grave, museum and library for the man himself, Kim Koo (백범기념관). I spent my time in the park reading the first volume of 『해방 전후사 사료 연구』and thought I would share a chart from a chapter on late colonial historical materials by 이완범.

After listing some of the available materials and lamenting the general lack of good historical sources for the late colonial period (1937-1945), most of the chapter is dedicated to using statistics to look at the period, or more specifically, independence movements during the period.1

I’m sharing two of his tables, merged together below2 which contain statistics on arrests for thought crimes in colonial Korea from 1928-1944.

Thought Crime Arrests 1928-1944
Ave. Persons Per Case
1928 227 1592 7.0
1929 253 1743 6.9
1930 397 4025 10.1
1931 436 3659 8.4
1932 345 4989 14.4
1933 213 2641 12.4
1934 183 2389 13.1
1935 172 1740 10.1
1936 167 2762 16.5
1937 134 1637 12.2
1938 145 1344 7 (9.3)
1939 95 1042 6.9 (11)
1940 103 1193 10.1 (11.6)
1941 232 861 8.4 (3.7)
1942 183 1142 14.4 (6.2)
1943 322 1002 12.4 (3.1)
First half 1944 132 337 13.1 (2.6)
Total 3,739 34,098  
Average 225.43 2,110.06 12.2 (9.4)

Note: The averages in 이완범’s chart for people per case seemed off from 1938-1944 and I can’t find any note of a change in his method of calculation or source for his numbers (anyone have a guess for where he is getting the numbers from?). Thus I have put my own quick calculation in parentheses for these years.

Cases Per Year Peopleperyear-1

Note: Though I’m sure there is a better way, in these charts I have simply doubled numbers from first half of 1944 for the 1944 entries.

Numbers can be so much fun and feel so meaty (especially when accompanied by colorful charts), but what can these numbers tell us by themselves?

This is not really my area and I don’t have any interest in these stats for my own research on early postwar Korea, but looking at charts like these always make me anxious and I thought I would use this posting to share some of that anxiety. These stats can give the historian a dizzy “objective” feeling to their work, especially when confronted with the caution and doubts many of us entertain when we proceed from anecdotal evidence. These kinds of stats, of course, need just as much, if not even more, caution and merit as much doubt as the other kinds of archival or oral materials that we work with.

Some concerns can be cleared up if you know a lot about the way thought crimes were defined, investigated, and tried. It can help to have a lot of background knowledge about the workings of colonial police and other organs (I don’t know much on this, including what the relationship, if there was any, was in colonial Korea between regular colonial police and the Japanese Tokkō, 特別高等警察 which was infamous for its investigation of thought crimes among the Japanese of the “mainland”).

These particular kinds of statistics are used by Korean historians to make claims about the nature and size of pro-indepedence movements. But this seems to me very hard to do, even if we ignore the complexity of the relationship between “people who are, alone or in a group, guilty of a thought crime as defined by the colonial authorities” and “people who were actively resisting Japanese colonial rule on the Korean peninsula as part of an organized movement.”

For example, how did the definition and scope of thought crimes change from 1928-1944? If there was no change in law, then did the working definition or the minimum seriousness of the offense that colonial police acted upon change? The interpretation of these numbers changes significantly if there were such changes. What if, for example, there was a meeting in some police headquarters somewhere where it was decided in late 1941 suddenly that they were no longer going to arrest Korean students who were suspected of drawing socialist slogans or insulting the emperor on the face of bathroom walls? Or the opposite? What if suddenly the effective scope of the arrests increased significantly in some years.

How did the numbers of police available to investigate thought crimes change over time? How many of those 34,098 total persons are in fact inflating the total number due to repeat offenses?

We could go on and on about the dangers of interpretation. In 이완범’s specific case, he wants to use the average people arrested per case to tell him something about the scale of the independence movements in the late colonial period, which is a “dark” period for which there is little material available. He claims that, “건당 평균인원수가 사건의 규모를 나타낸다면 사건의 규모는 운동의 조직적 크기를 어느 정도 반영하고 있다고 볼 수 있다”3 But the average number of people per case tells us very little about the “organizational size of the [independence] movements” without looking at the cases themselves. For example, in 1940, with 103 cases and 1142 people involved it is possible, if extremely unlikely, that 102 cases involved a single Korean who yelled 만세 or some pro-independence slogans in the street (I really don’t know if that qualifies for a thought crime, but let us just take this for an example) and one huge case involving a massive crackdown on a Communist conspiracy that included the arrest of 1040 people for distributing revolutionary pamphlets. The average people per case does not tell him what he wants to know.

There is much more that can be said about materials like this but I guess the lesson is, “A few statistics are a dang’rous Thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring: / There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain, / And drinking largely can sometimes leave us more confused than when we started.”

  1. It is unfortunate that, with the exception of the first chapter on materials related to wartime mobilization, everything in the first volume of such a general title focuses on independence movements. Volume two discusses mostly the postwar period, with materials related to education, political history, North Korean publications and US archival materials on the North Korean economic policies.  

  2. 『해방 전후사 사료 연구』p88 and p91. 이완범 takes the material from 朝鮮総督府警務局(編)『最近に於ける朝鮮治安状況』for materials up to 1939 and 近藤釖一(編)『太平洋戦争下終末期朝鮮の治政』 for the years therafter. The footnotes for the chart notes some discrepancies for the 1934 and 1945 numbers between the 1936 edition and his 1938 edition and an alternative lower case number of 74 for 1939 in a different source published in 1940, but it may not have been stats for the full year.  

  3. p90. 


  1. I know this sort of problem well from my own work. I actually used quite a lot of charts and statistics that I compiled myself in my thesis and would often look back on them sometime after I’d done them and think, “that looks nice, but it doesn’t actually reveal anything at all”. In other cases the data that I had painstakingly and lovingly compiled just told me what I already knew and what historians had been saying in more general terms for a long time. Disappointing but perhaps useful in that it adds another layer to the empirical evidence for a certain picture of events. As you say, interpretation is the most tricky thing about this sort of historical data. My opinion is that you always need to provide some other sort of information alongside such statistical information, preferably information from narrative sources that can put the statistics in context, or which the statistics can provide quantitative support for.

  2. I am not supportive of too much dependence of statistical data, either, but it is not difficult to avoid basic problems like the ones you discuss (e.g. the sample distribution), actually. When social scientists compile numbers by themselves today, they usually indicate the standard deviation, the number and cases of outliers, etc, to show an overall characteristic of the dataset. Numbers are very useful if you carefully use them.

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