EVERY KOREAN male is familiar with Article 88 of the Military Service Act: “Any person who has received a notice of enlistment for active duty service or a notice of call and fails to enlist in the military or to comply with the call… shall be punished by imprisonment with labour for no more than three years.” The following article has accounted for the incarceration of more than 19,300 conscientious objectors who refused to enlist for reasons based on their personal beliefs and faiths. While failure to comply with the duty of conscription under any reason has been considered a criminal activity for decades, a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of South Korea has declared religious grounds for rejecting the military conscription to be within the constitutional rights as a South Korean citizen on Nov. 1, 2018. More specifically, the Constitutional court ruled that the failure to offer alternative forms of civilian service to the conscientious objectors was unconstitutional, mandating the Ministry of Defence to establish a system of alternative service for the objectors. In a time of rapid transitions to military service, The Yonsei Annals offers a close look into the past, present and the upcoming change that the country expects.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights defines the term “conscientious objector” as an individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service on the ground of freedom of thought, conscience or religion. While the emergence of conscientious objectors has been a global phenomenon, South Korea plays a large part in discussion with roughly 94% of the conscientious objectors worldwide currently jailed in the country. The issue remains constant as the country has approximately 570 new conscientious objectors a year.
Most conscientious objectors have been sentenced 18 months in prison, yet they are not treated as prisoners. Often they are assigned administrative roles to assist the correctional staff instead of physical labour. In most of the cases, conscientious objectors were also granted release on parole after completing 80% of their terms, which rounds down to roughly 14 months. Still, after release, they face the stigma of having a criminal record which could affect their future employment.
99.8% of the conscientious objectors in South Korea are members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pacifist religious group. The religion was first established in South Korea in 1912 by an American missionary Robert R. Hollister and currently has membership of nearly 101,000 people with 1,278 congregations across the country.
The rationale for members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to reject the duty of conscription lies in their fundamental religious beliefs. The religion states that while Jehovah’s Witnesses respect the authority of the government under which they live, they are to remain strictly neutral in terms of politics, to follow Jesus’ example of not being part of government affairs. Witnesses today are expected to “beat their swords into ploughshares,” and not to “learn war anymore.”
In an interview with the Annals, Hong Young-il, an Elder of Jehovah’s Witnesses said, “many people often have the misconception that our religion forces Witnesses to become conscientious objectors, which is not true at all. All conscientious objections among the Witnesses are voluntary in nature. Their deep faith in God and his words in the Bible naturally led them to follow God’s words.”
While the choice is up to the individual, it doesn’t come without consequence. When asked if there were religious consequences to a Witness serving in the military, Elder Hong replied, “We would regard such an individual as someone who has lost his religious identity as a Jehovah’s Witness and has given up his religious faith. However, this is different from the idea of religious excommunication. Parents may continue their family ties with the individual, it is just that he or she wouldn’t be treated or understood as a Witness within the religious community.”
While many South Korean men joke about escaping service by joining the Witness community, it is not that simple. “Abiding by the words of the Bible, being baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness essentially requires your dedication to study the Bible, develop a strong faith towards God and live by the teachings of the Bible,” mentioned Elder Hong. The whole process of being recognized as a Jehovah’s Witness is a rather tedious process, with an individual taking an average of one or two years to be officially baptized after evaluation among the elders.
The landmark ruling by the Constitution Court of Korea last November has pressured the Ministry of Defence to draft their proposal for an alternative services plan. The new system requires the approval of the National Assembly by 2020 before being implemented. Tentatively, the planned service outlines a 36-month service in the correctional facilities, where the conscientious objectors would assist the prison guards with administrative work and inmate rehabilitation programs. The 36-months duration of the proposed alternative service policy is double the active duty period. This has raised some voices of concern since the established international standards for human rights states the period of alternative service should not be longer than 1.5 times the active duty period. To give the government some room in their decision, the policy will undergo a probation period of a year where the duration of the alternative service can be extended or reduced under the approval of the president and the national assembly.
This has had a considerable impact on the cases of the conscientious objectors being evaluated now. Park Su-hyuk, a 27-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, mentioned his own predicament: “Due to the recent declaration by the Constitution Court, there was an indefinite postponement for my trial before it officially resumed in March.” He went on, “The focus of my trial has changed considerably. They are now trying to verify that I am a legitimate Jehovah’s Witness and checking if my declaration of conscientious objection was truly motivated on religious grounds.”
This transition brings about a new source of concern: How do you verify one’s faith in a religion? Trials for conscientious objection will undoubtedly have a system for verification. Park mentioned that in his own case, he was required to submit several supporting documents, including a high school portfolio, verification of belief issued by the religious organization, and documents that verify if other members of his family were declared conscientious objectors under similar grounds. “I am not exactly sure how these documents are related to my personal religious faith, or if they are effective in verifying my faith. It is all really ambiguous,” said Park.
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With South Korea in the middle of a drastic transition 63 years after the implementation of military conscription in 1957, the country is certainly taking a different path from the traditional idea of military service for all. While many find the idea of alternative services to be an alien concept now, the government is taking a direction in acknowledging their religious rights. Conscientious objectors will soon not have the dilemma of choosing to serve their country or their beliefs.