News / Asia

S. Korean Conscientious Objectors Seek Alternative to Military Service

S. Korea's Conscientious Objectors Face Dilemmai
February 09, 2014 1:07 AM
South Korea requires all able-bodied male citizens to serve about two years in their nation’s armed forces. Of those who object to military duty on moral grounds, most end up in prison. From Seoul, Jason Strother tells us more.
VIDEO: Hundreds of able-bodied South Korean men are imprisoned each year for refusing compulsory military service
Jason StrotherMalte 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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Comment Sorting
by: Kim from: South Korea
February 11, 2014 6:56 AM
Consientious objectors are not violating korean laws, but koreans laws are violating their rights of conscience and religion guarranteed by the Constitution. Which is higher value? The Constitution or laws? The anwer is obvious.

by: Robin Mprgan from: USA
February 10, 2014 12:01 AM
Anybody wanting to knpe truth about JW's should do their own research. The comment about them helping only themselves is oncorrect and mostly purported by active opposers of pur religion. So nursedeb is flat wrong.

by: Parker from: Mexico
February 09, 2014 7:30 PM
Cool Look at the last scene. He has the new English Bible!

by: nursedebb from: Colorado
February 09, 2014 4:41 PM
Ridiculous that the JW's rely on politicians and governments to protect their right to worship as they desire, but do nothing at all to assist others despite calling themselves "Christian" In any natural disaster they JW's only help their own, they do not help or assist anyone that is not a Jehovah's Witness. Absolutely ridiculous that they cry and whine about being jailed for disobeying the law.

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