[NOTEBOOK]Conscientious objectors: not yetThe Seoul district court recently sentenced Ra Dong-hyeok, 26, to 18 months in prison for refusing to enter the army because of his ethical stand against war. The sentencing stirred a debate over the right to refuse military duty and alternative service.
Although ethical conscientious objection is a fairly new concept in Korea, refusing to serve in the military on religious causes extends back to the early 1950s. Now, about 1,600 young men, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, are serving time for refusing to be drafted, and about 600 new draft rejecters are sentenced annually.
Jehovah's Witnesses have a long history of refusing to serve in the military; many in Germany were sent to concentration camps or summarily executed for refusing to serve. Trying to persuade them to serve is nearly impossible. They have demanded the introduction of alternative service and cheered the Constitutional Court's decision to review whether the draft law is constitutional. They say that when freedom of religion conflicts with a mandatory call to arms, their rights are being trampled.
But who would serve in the army if alternative service became an option?
The advocates of alternative service say that allowing 600 people each year the option of performing other jobs would not undermine national security. But only Jehovah's Witnesses have been willing, so far, to let religious beliefs lead them to prison in large numbers. Mr. Ra was one of only 21 students who announced their refusal to serve on ethical grounds. O Tae-yang, a Buddhist, also refused induction.
Were alternative service readily available, there would almost surely be a dramatic increase in the number of objectors on religious grounds; Jehovah's Witnesses account for only a small fraction of Christians in Korea and an even smaller proportion of persons with all forms of religious beliefs. Six hundred people per year going to jail sounds like a large number, but compared with those who are injured or die in the army, the number is still relatively small.
According to a military source, an average of 275 young men died during military service each year between 1995 and 1999, and more than a third of the deaths were attributed to suicide. There are an even larger number of soldiers who are permanently injured on duty.
Allowing the privilege of alternative services to some persons just because they have different faiths or "clearer" conscience would be unjust when hundreds of thousands of men are sacrificing their time, opportunities, health and even life while they are serving the military.
We have to acknowledge that few people want to go into the army. No one wants to spend two or more good years of their lives sleeping in barracks and suffering through tough training and abuse. Allowing alternative service would be the legalization of draft dodging.
One of my friends spent three years in jail because he refused to enter the army because of religious reasons. He said that he would have not joined the army even if he had only had to shovel dirt throughout his service term, without military training, because anything he did in the army would have been to prepare for a war. That sentiment is only half right. We have an army not to attack another country but to defend our own. Besides that, the South Korean government is unlikely to wage a war against North Korea or any other nation.
Someday, when North and South Korea come to terms with each other, thus making the draft less necessary, we will be able to talk about allowing alternative service.
by Limb Jae-un
* The writer is a staff writer of the JoongAng Daily.