South Korea: Court Rules for Military Draft Alternatives

For many young male Jehovah’s Witnesses, the thrills and joy of reaching “manhood” are tempered by the possibility of serving some time in a Federal prison. Why? Because they face the possibility (especially when there are wars going on) that they will be called up   for military service.

The New York Times reports that South Korea’s Constitutional Court ordered the government to introduce civilian forms of service for conscientious objectors. This would include Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Times reports that young men go to prison every year “for refusing to serve in the military for reasons of conscience or religious beliefs.”

The court ruled that the country’s Military Service Act is unconstitutional because it does not offer such alternative services. The government has until the end of next year to revise the law.

The Times reports that South Korea “has prosecuted more young men for conscientious objection. Almost all are Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is more than any other country, and one of few countries that treat it as a crime without offering a different form of national service.

Amnesty International reports that more than 19,300 South Korean conscientious objectors have gone to prison since the Korean War ended.

“The state can no longer delay resolving this problem,” the court said in its 6-3 ruling, which held that Article 5 violated conscientious objectors’ freedom of conscience.

The Defense Ministry said Thursday that it would honor the ruling by introducing alternative services as soon as possible. Possible forms of service that have been suggested include working in homeless shelters, prisons, and hospitals, or as police officers or firefighters. Jehovah’s Witnesses have typically refused to accept alternative service offered by governments – leading to many more going to prison than would be required by law. The Military Service Act calls for up to three years in prison for those who refuse to serve.

An estimated 214 Jehovah’s Witnesses are serving 18-month prison sentences for violating the law, and more than 950 others are on trial. The Times reports that all were expected to be freed after this ruling.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea called the decision the beginning of an end to the “long and harsh pain” felt by its young, male members and their families.

For decades after the Korean War, when the South was ruled by military dictators, government officials raided Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls to arrest draft-age men. If they refused to serve, they were beaten – according to a 2008 report.

Few spoke out for them. Mainstream churches viewed them as a cult, and the threat from North Korea led many South Koreans to regard military service almost as a sacred rite.

Although South has been considered to be “the good Korea,” the commission attributed the deaths of five Jehovah’s Witnesses between 1975 and 1985 to beatings and torture. It reported incidents of starvation, water torture and solitary cells smaller than a telephone booth where Jehovah’s Witnesses were forced to stand for days without sleeping.

Such practices are long gone. But Jehovah’s Witnesses and other conscientious objectors who have spent time in prison say their job opportunities have been seriously limited. ”I refuse to pick up a rifle. I renounce all forms of violence,” said one conscientious objector who is not a Jehovah’s Witness – but was also among the petitioners.

A handful of South Korean conscientious objectors have obtained refugee status in Canada, France, and Australia in recent years. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly condemned South Korea for violating conscientious objectors’ “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

The country’s attitudes have been changing. As a candidate last year, President Moon Jae-in promised to consider introducing alternative service for conscientious objectors. Since 2011, lower-court judges have declared 85 conscientious objectors not guilty, though all of the acquittals were appealed by prosecutors.

Many still argue that conscientious objectors must be punished for the sake of national security and that the option of alternative civilian service will lead many young men to evade the draft under the pretext of ethical principles.

“Why don’t you just leave the country if you don’t want to serve in the military!” shouted a few protesters in front of the court on Thursday.

The court said in its ruling that if conscientious objectors are carefully screened, their numbers will never be big enough to cause difficulties in filling the ranks of the military.

The ruling was a hard-won victory for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Because of our faith, we have been treated like criminals,” said Kim Min-hwan, a member of the faith who served in prison from 2012 to 2013. “I am overwhelmed that with this ruling, an era is coming to a close.”

[The above post was adapted from a report by the New York Times By Choe Sang-Hun June 28, 2018]

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