CHEONGJU, South Korea, Jan. 16 (Korea Bizwire) – For the first time in the 13 years since 2004, a South Korean court has ruled that a reservist who said no to reserve training is innocent.
Judge Lee Hyung-gul from the Cheongju District Court ruled Sunday that a 34-year-old man identified as Yoo was innocent of charges of violating the Establishment of Homeland Reserve Forces Act.
Yoo is a member of the Jeohovah’s Witnesses. He was indicted without detention last March for refusing to take part in training without a justifiable cause.
All able Korean men must serve roughly two years in the military. Following their discharge, they must attend annual reservist training (usually 24 to 36 hours per year) for the next six years.
During his legal struggle, Yoo claimed that he refused his training to follow his religious conscience that he mustn’t participate in combat training, arguing that it is his freedom of conscience guaranteed by the constitution.
In the ruling in favor of Yoo, judge Lee said that “there is a need for alternative measures that can guarantee one’s fundamental rights,” adding that seeking criminal charges for those refusing reserve training, without the government making any efforts to provide an alternative means for service, is violating the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the constitution.
“Reservist training is much less demanding than the regular military service, and so it shouldn’t be difficult (for the government) to establish a fair alternative service,” said Lee.
Korea has seen an increasing number of individuals refuse conscription in recent years, many citing religious reasons.
Surprisingly enough, the number of court rulings in which these conscientious objectors were found to be innocent has also increased recently. Since May 2015, 15 cases in total had rulings in favor of the accused, with some 40 cases currently pending at the Supreme Court.
At the moment, refusing conscription without justifiable reason can be punished by up to three years in prison, while the penalty for refusing reserve training is either up to one-year imprisonment or 10 million won in fines.
The Constitutional Court of Korea already ruled twice, in 2004 and 2011, that the laws punishing conscientious objectors are in fact constitutional, until they were once again challenged in 2015 by three individuals who received prison sentences under the law. A ruling in the case of the three objectors is expected to be announced sometime this year.
Meanwhile, across the globe, conscientious objectors have been more successful in voicing their opinions.
Among 83 countries implementing conscription in 2012, 31 recognized the right to object to conscription based on one’s conscience. Countries including Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Israel, and Poland offer alternative types of service, such as community service, to individuals refusing military service.
According to the United Nations, 723 individuals were imprisoned in 2013 globally for turning down conscription based on religious beliefs, 669 of whom were Korean.
“Over time the values and the standards of judgement have changed, and the awareness of human rights improved. We need to reopen debate on the legal grounds for conscientious objectors,” said a local law official.
By Lisa Jang (firstname.lastname@example.org)