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Top court finds Jehovah's Witness guilty of evading civilian service

March 26, 2023 - 13:36 By Son Ji-hyoung
A silhouette of a soldier saluting with South Korea flag on background (123rf)

The South Korean Supreme Court revealed Sunday that it recently found a religious man guilty of failing to fulfill his alternative military service as a social service agent, which exempts him from active duty as a soldier.

The case to decide whether the 31-year-old Jehovah's Witness, whose further personal identity remains undisclosed, committed a crime has been remanded to a district court in Daejeon for further proceedings.

A ruling by the nation's top court read that those who refuse to serve a mandatory role that involves neither use of a firearm nor other forms of military training cannot be considered a conscientious objector. It added the ruling does not restrict a person's freedom to refuse military service due to religious beliefs.

The top court judges also refuted the man's claim that social service agents are under the command of a commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration -- in charge of military conscription -- and his decision to refuse to do his duty is just. The court judges said their roles and responsibilities are neither directly defined nor supervised by the commissioner.

The man was accused of being absent from his workplace as a social service worker for six months without authorization from December 2015. He started his role there as a civilian in June 2014 after he was not deemed able-bodied for active duty.

The man was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a district court and a high court. But the Supreme Court in 2018 overturned the lower court decisions and remanded the case to a lower court, acquitting the religious man of his charges and recognizing his failure to fulfill his duty as a conscientious objection.

The lower court confirmed the acquittal of the religious man, but the prosecution again appealed to the top court, leading to its decision to overturn the same court's earlier ruling.

All Korean able-bodied men aged 18 to 35 must perform military service for at least 18 months, in a country where the two Koreas remain technically at war since a 1953 cease-fire.

Until 2020 over 500 conscientious objectors were forced to jail for their refusal to serve in the military each year. Beginning in 2020, two years after a Constitutional Court ruling, an able bodied man with religious beliefs that prevent him from serving active duty can instead serve an alternative civilian role after enlistment. The new conscription policy was not in effect when the defendant in the case was serving his duty.