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S. Korean Conscientious Objectors Seek Alternative to Military Service

  • Jason Strother
  • Malte Kollenberg

Kim Ji-kwan does not return to this jail on the outskirts of Seoul very often. Having spent just more than a year locked in one of its cells, the 33 year old's crime is one that many are afraid to commit: refusing to serve in South Korea’s military.

“I became a conscientious objector because I learned from the Bible that you have to love your neighbor and your enemy," he says. "We should love life.”

Kim’s father and two brothers also spent time in jail. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they say learning to use weapons or fight goes against their religious convictions.

Kim says he would have been open to other types of service.

“If there were an alternative service, one that does not go against my beliefs, then I would have done that," he says. "A service that does not require actual military training.”

According to government figures, each year hundreds of able-bodied South Korean men are sentenced to up to 18 months in prison for refusing compulsory military service.

While not all of them refuse a stint in the armed forces on strictly moral grounds, most end up behind bars.

According to London-based War Resisters' International (WRI), an advocacy group that keeps track of conscientious objectors worldwide, South Korea's statistics stand out.

“According to the data ... the largest number of imprisoned conscientious objectors — not necessarily the number of objectors themselves, but imprisoned objectors — is currently in South Korea," said WRI’s Sergeiy Sandler via Skype. "The way conscientious objectors are treated are, of course, substandard in all human rights senses.”

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense says there are no plans to change its conscription policy. The Ministry declined an interview request but has pointed to security concerns with North Korea as justification for maintaining the status quo.

Lee Jae-seong, a law professor at Konkuk University in Seoul, says public opinion no longer supports the government’s policies.

“The South Korean government has always stressed security and has said that an alternative to military service would harm our safety," he said. "But the public no longer believes that. Only the government is holding on to that idea."

Lee points out that a recent Gallup poll indicates 68 percent of respondents say they are in favor of creating such an alternative service so that conscientious objectors will not have to go to jail.

Conscientious objector Kim Ji-kwan says he and the other men in his family did the right thing by going to prison for their beliefs. But if he one day has a son, he says, he would not expect him to carry on the tradition.

Refusing to serve is a personal decision based on one’s own faith, he says.

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