Finding alternativesThe Supreme Court on Thursday delivered a milestone ruling, recognizing an individual’s right to reject conscription because it goes against one’s religious faith or conscience. That ruling is a reversal of its previous verdict of 2004. The highest court’s bench, led by progressive-minded Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su, found the defendant Oh Seung-hun not-guilty for violating the conscription law that requires all able-bodied Korean male nationals to serve about two years in the military in a country still technically at war with North Korea. “Universal enforcement of military obligation and punishment goes against the free democracy values of tolerating minorities,” the bench said.
The top court ruling could finally end the confusion in lower courts that delivered mixed rulings on conscientious objectors. The verdict also is in sync with the Constitutional Court’s judgment in June. At the time, the court delivered a more nuanced ruling. It reached the conclusion that although punishing conscientious objection was constitutional, Article 5 of the conscription law, which defines alternative options to serve the nation as a form of military service, is unconstitutional.
The Constitutional Court ordered the government to provide alternative options to military service. The Supreme Court was also divided. Those who were in the opposition of the 9-to-4 ruling expressed concern that the non-guilty ruling could stoke unnecessary confusion when the government has yet to come up with alternative service options.
Military service is among the four basic duties of every Korean citizen. Fairness is the key to uphold the law. There are already hundreds who refuse military obligation on conscientious grounds. The number could balloon, and many bogus believers could follow. The fairness with those who faithfully comply with conscription also should be taken into consideration.
The Ministry of Defense is considering the idea of adding six to 12 months to the length of non-military service. Given the time soldiers spend to guard the nation, that extra time should not be deemed excessive. There are three related bills pending in the National Assembly. The legislature must immediately get to fine-tuning the bills to ensure there are no unnecessary controversies and side effects from the two-track military service system.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 2, Page 30