[VIEW 2035] Rethinking alternative military service

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[VIEW 2035] Rethinking alternative military service

Yu Sung-kuk
The author is a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo. 
“It’s about my religious beliefs,” said one of my primary school friends, when I asked him why he would not pledge allegiance to the flag. He had been very active playing football and doing presentations in class. It was only during the morning meetings when he seemed indifferent. We could not fully relate to him, but we guessed that he must have his own reasons. We thought it wouldn’t matter if we were friends. A year after, I saw his mother participating in missionary work. His whole family, including him, were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
That friend came to my mind five years ago, when I started covering conscientious objectors. Back then, although the international community considered punishing conscientious objectors a form of persecution, many Koreans were skeptical about the word “conscientious.” The number of judges who declared them to be not guilty had been increasing. During that time, it was said that conscientious objectors “may be in charge of some tasks that others would shun because of the high risk, such as transferring patients with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS).” 
A year later, as the Constitutional Court ruled conscientious objection based on religious belief constitutional, it became legal. After a year, the National Assembly established the Act on the Assignment to and Performance of the Alternative Service and the law came into effect in October 2020.
This May, the first legal alternative military service was finished and I started covering the reality of alternate service. It turned out that what conscientious objectors are doing is not that different from the past, when it was illegal and objectors had to serve a sentence in prison. Civil organizations and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea considers the period and forms of the alternative service quite punitive. Conversely, some argue that it is reasonable, considering those who normally serve their time in the army. 
The period of alternative service is double the ordinary military service. And the objectors have to stay in prison. I finished my military duty as a combat soldier in Gangwon Province. When I think about my military service, what is required to them seems to be punitive, rather than fair. Thanks to thorough and meticulous examinations, the number of objectors who were allowed to do alternative service hasn’t increased, as well as that of males in their twenties, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
What if they have worked in medical facilities that lacked personnel when the Covid pandemic just broke out or for blind spots that need more caregivers? If they can do tasks that can improve people’s lives, it will be constructive for society as well. “They’re just staying in prison. It’s meaningless,” said a director in charge of the military service. 
The Ministry of Justice pointed out that “diversification of military service is needed in the long term.” I once visited Finland to cover the issue. There, even though it adopted a conscription system, people can perform alternative service if they just apply for it. A Defense Ministry official explained “as people feel satisfaction with military service, the number of people who perform it remains similar. Allowing people to have options is what a democratic nation should be able to do.” 
I could not help but be envious of his pride that came out of their national system.
Just like I couldn't understand my friend’s religious beliefs 20 years ago, people who choose alternative service seem quite different now. It is true that they are under a policy and law in this nation of democracy. As they fulfil their duty, the nation should examine and improve the alternative service system. I hope members of our society think about how we can make a nation where national security and human rights, individuals’ convictions and military service can coexist harmoniously.

BY YU SUNG-KUK [yu.sungkuk@joongang.co.kr]
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