Court rules against conscientious objectorsThe Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that criminally punishing conscientious objectors to military service is constitutional, in line with two previous rulings over the highly disputed issue.
The nine-judge bench, led by Chief Justice Lee Jin-sung, was split 4-4, meaning the law will remain in place. One judge rejected making a judgment for procedural reasons.
Thursday’s decision marks the third of its kind handed down by the Constitutional Court. In two previous adjudications in 2004 and 2011, the court upheld the state’s argument that holding objectors criminally accountable for violating the Military Service Act was constitutional.
The court, however, did rule that not providing alternatives to conscientious objectors was unconstitutional.
Conscientious objectors have long been a subject of heated debate in South Korea, where all able-bodied men are required to serve around two years in the military.
Some have raised questions about whether their claims of right to refuse should be tolerated in a country where national security remains an important issue amid tension with North Korea.
The current law stipulates that refusing to be drafted without due reason is punishable by a prison term of up to three years.
Since the 1950s, about 19,000 conscript candidates have been arrested and served time, mostly 18 months in jail, for not complying with the law.
The court ruled in previous cases in favor of the state, citing that fulfilling one’s military obligations overrides freedom of conscience given the unique security situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Cases related to conscientious objectors in Korea have resulted in mixed rulings in lower and appellate courts. Defendants in a total of 83 cases since 2004 were found innocent by two lower courts, but they were all overturned and convicted by the top court.
The Supreme Court also has pending cases regarding conscientious objectors. It recently announced that it referred them to the full bench, and the court will hold a public hearing in late August before reaching a decision.