SEOUL, Aug. 13 (Korea Bizwire) – “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for death,” said American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem ‘Conscientious Objector’.
South Korean law currently mandates that all men between 18 and 25 years of age complete a period of military service. As of 2016, those enrolled in the army serve 21 months; navy, 23 months; and air force, 24 months. Considering the military predicament that the country faces with North Korea, conscription was and still is deemed a necessary measure to preserve national security interests.
Nonetheless, South Korea has also seen a rising number of conscientious objectors in the past decade, those who refuse to perform military service on the grounds of freedom, religion, or simply conscience. And despite the current Military Service Law that punishes those refusing enlistment without reasonable grounds with up to three years of imprisonment, there have recently been court cases in which conscientious objectors were found not guilty.
In the past year, nine such objectors, all of whom were Jehovah’s Witnesses, were found not guilty of refusing conscription, with the case of a 21-year-old referred to only as Jang being the most recent.
Jang was indicted for evading his military duty, with his objections based on his religious faith. He had been issued his notice of enlistment back in December 2015.
“I refused enlistment based on my religious conscience that I shall not pick up a rifle intended for war,” said Jang. “And this was my freedom of conscience, promised by the constitution, to exercise veto against military service.”
Judge Lee Hyeong-gul, who reached a verdict in Jang’s favor, noted that “there are other ways that the defendant can contribute to his country without having his human rights violated,” and decided that it was unfair for the government to penalize the defendant “without providing alternative measures.”
“The internal conflict that such conscientious objectors have to suffer is rather intense. Yet, the government has not made a single effort to find alternatives, and has neglected these constitutional disputes for over 60 years,” said judge Lee.
He also pointed to countries around the world who effectively resolved the fairness issue of compulsory military service by implementing a substitute service system, and said that the United Nations also recommended the adoption of a similar system.
Judge Ryu Jun-koo also found not guilty two other Jehovah’s Witnesses in June, on similar grounds as Lee.
“Forcing the devotees of a specific religious group to enlist is violating both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,” said Ryu in his verdict. “I deem that defendants, in fact, do have ‘reasonable grounds’, as indicated in article 1 of the Military Service Law, to refuse conscription.”
But despite hopeful news for conscientious objectors, it is unlikely that these verdicts will be upheld in higher courts. This has been the case for most legal proceedings in the past, where defendants who were found not guilty during their first trials were later found guilty on appeal at higher courts.
Since 2006, 5,723 Korean men have refused to perform military service citing religious beliefs, and 5,215 were punished. The majority were sentenced to at least 18 months of imprisonment, which corresponds to the length of actual service.
However, the Constitutional Court of Korea is currently evaluating the constitutionality of the Military Service Law that allows conscientious objectors to be punished. This will be the third time for the court to examine the matter, following cases in 2004 and 2011, and in both of the prior cases, the court decided the law is in fact constitutional. The decision is expected to be made before the end of the year.
“The fact that judges are finding conscientious objectors innocent despite previous verdicts by the constitutional court is a sign that our society’s values and standards are rapidly changing,” said a legal observer. “It’s also an indication that there’s a need to reevaluate Korea’s legal stance on conscientious objection.”
By Lina Jang (firstname.lastname@example.org)