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Supreme Court accepts conscientious objections

Nov 02,2018
South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that moral scruples and religious beliefs are valid reasons to refuse compulsory military service, a landmark change in the court’s decades-long stance on conscientious objection and one that’s expected to impact the fate of over 900 men.

Thursday’s verdict concerned only one defendant, a 34-year-old Jehovah’s Witness named Oh Seung-heon. In a nine to four vote, the full bench ordered an appellate court to retry his case, effectively clearing him of charges that he violated the Military Service Act. Two lower courts had sentenced him to 18 months in prison. Oh might serve alternative service instead, such as working at a public institute within the civilian sector.

The decision comes amid a thaw in tensions between North Korea and a month after South Korean President Moon Jae-in, following his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, said the Pyongyang Declaration was a “virtual end-of-war” statement by the Koreas.

The South technically remains at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.

South Korea’s armed forces rely heavily on conscription and require all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 to complete about two years of service, making it among the very few countries in the world that mandate all men to serve in the military. Refusal to comply is punishable by a maximum three years in prison, though the government provides options for alternative service in a few exceptional cases, such as men deemed unfit for active duty, including when they’re too skinny or too obese, allowing them to work in subways or libraries.

Conscientious objection has long been a subject of public debate in South Korea.

More than 19,000 conscientious objectors were criminally punished under South Korean law since the 1950s, mostly serving 18 months in jail. A majority of those objectors were Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sect that bases its refusal to serve in the military on Isaiah 2:4, a part of which reads, “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

South Korea’s Supreme Court said Thursday that it “violates the practice of tolerance towards minorities, a spirit of free democracy, to uniformly force the implementation of mandatory military service and criminally charge those who fail to fulfill.” In that sense, the court continued, conscientious objection falls into the category of a “valid reason” not to comply with the military’s call for enlistment.

That decision overturned two lower courts’ verdicts that found Oh, who received a notice of enlistment for active duty service in 2013, guilty of violating the country’s Military Service Act. The last time that the Supreme Court made a decision on conscientious objection was 2004, when it denied that moral and religious beliefs were a valid reason to refuse to serve in the military, upholding a Supreme Court ruling from 1968.

According to the Supreme Court, there are more than 200 cases pending with the highest court related to conscientious objection. The Military Manpower Administration said 966 men were currently refusing to serve in the military by identifying themselves as conscientious objectors.

Signs of change came last June, when the Constitutional Court objected to the country’s practice of imprisoning conscientious objectors and said it was unconstitutional they weren’t given any options such as civilian service. The Constitutional Court, at the time, ordered the government to introduce the option of alternative service until the end of 2019.

Thursday’s Supreme Court decision, however, does not affect those who are already serving jail time, and a special pardon from the government is their only way out of prison.

Oh said Thursday he was “grateful” for the court’s decision and stressed he’d faithfully perform alternative service if given the option. He also said some people may fear that the ruling might be “misused” by other men to evade military service.

The court’s decision instantly flared into heated debate between left and right. Progressive civic groups welcomed the verdict and urged the government to pardon conscientious objectors in jail.

Conservative groups said the court’s verdict brought a “sense of loss” to young South Korean men who were fulfilling their military duty.


BY LEE SUNG-EUN, KIM MIN-SANG [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]


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