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Top court’s ruling on conscientious objection fuels alternative military service debate

Nov. 1, 2018 - 11:23 By Claire Lee

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that religious and conscientious beliefs are to be considered as valid reasons for refusing the country’s mandatory military service, overturning its 2004 decision and fueling debate as to what alternative service would entail.

In a 9-4 vote, the full bench led by Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su ordered an appellate court to retry the case of Oh Seung-hun, effectively stating that he should be cleared of the conviction.

The top court’s decision, which comes after the Constitutional Court’s June 28 ruling that acknowledged for the first time the need for alternative service for conscientious objectors, would stop thousands of Korean men from being arrested for refusing to fulfil their mandatory military duty. 

Human rights activists hold a sign that says "Peace has won" among others, in front of the Supreme Court in Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap)

Still technically at war with North Korea, South Korea offers no alternative to the military duty required of all able-bodied men.

The proposal for the alternative service, which is being put together by the Ministry of National Defense, Ministry of Justice and Military Manpower Administration, faces questions as to whether it meets international human rights standards.

According to a number of government sources, the proposal currently in the works envisions an alternative service that is 36 months long, up to twice as long as the mandatory military service.

The proposal, which is to be submitted to the National Assembly for a review next week, also suggests that the alternative service take place at correctional facilities, such as prisons and detention centers for criminals. It suggests the Defense Ministry or MMA should be charged with reviewing and approving alternative service applications rather than an independent government body.

Some experts and human rights activists say the proposal, although it has yet to be finalized and submitted, does not meet international human rights standards.

Tom Rainey-Smith, the campaigning and engagement team coordinator at Amnesty International Korea, said alternative service should be “of a comparable length to military service” and that a nonmilitary government entity should assess applications of conscientious objector status.

“It is important to emphasize this point as it has been framed in some of the public debate that a longer service and more difficult conditions are needed to ensure that an individual’s claim to conscientious objection is genuine,” he said at a public debate in Seoul on Wednesday.

“Increasing the length of alternative service in relation to military service must not be used as a way to test the sincerity of one’s conviction. ... The assessment of applications of conscientious objector status should be done by a body under the control of the civilian authorities specifically appointed with this task.”
South Korean members of Jehovah`s Witnesses pose for photos in front of the Supreme Court in Seoul on Thursday, after the top court ruled that religious beliefs are to be considered as valid reasons for refusing the country’s mandatory military service. (Yonhap)

Kim Hyung-su, who served the mandatory military duty but is refusing to attend the reserve forces training for religious reasons, says the tentative proposal simply “legalizes the current practice of sending conscientious objectors to jail.”

According to Kim, most conscientious objectors who have served jail terms -- 18 months in prison -- worked as assistants for prison officers, rather than simply staying as prisoners. In most cases, conscientious objectors are paroled after serving 14 months, according to government data.

“The tentative proposal for the alternative service basically makes conscientious objectors do what those who have served jail terms did in prison -- being assistants to prison officers -- but just for a much longer period, by 24 months,” he said in a phone interview with The Korea Herald.

“I think the (tentative) proposal pushes for an alternative service of punitive nature.”

Baek Seung-deok, a  conscientious objector who studies conscription issue, suggested including care work, such as caring for the elderly in nursing homes, as one of the options for the alternative service.

“I think this -- having men in the professional field that is largely considered to be women’s work -- will challenge the gender norms,” he said at Wednesday‘s public debate.

Since the 1950s, some 20,000 men have been arrested and jailed for refusing to serve in the military in South Korea. The number is higher than all objectors jailed in the rest of the world. Some 90 percent of all Korean men who have served jail time for refusing military service were Jehovah’s witnesses.

The appellant, Oh, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to serve the military duty. A Jehovah’s Witness, he argues that serving in the military would be an act against his faith.

By Claire Lee (