South Korea backs away from lifting ban on conscientious objection
A conscientious objector to mandatory military service, Lee Jun-gyu, 27, sheds tears during a speech in front of the Constitutional Court’s gates in Jongno, central Seoul, yesterday before the court’s decision.
What a waste!
Every month over 30 men, on average – men of upright moral character, men of conscience, men who would rather go to prison than violate their own beliefs – are branded as criminals in South Korea.
Most people, off the top of their head, would rank South Korea right up there with the United States, England, Germany and Japan as a democratic, enlightened, free-thinking, forward-thinking, human-rights-respecting society.
Apparently that is not the case. Apparently, South Korea should be classed with places like Iran and Turkey.
On Tuesday, August 30, the Constitutional Court of South Korea upheld the constitutionality of the country’s Military Act by a vote of 7-2. Article 88, section 1 of the conscription law states that those who refuse mandatory military service without valid reasons are subject to up to three years in prison. The only “valid reasons” they consider are physical or mental disabilities.
The ruling was made in response to several decisions by lower courts over the past couple years that had actually found in favor of conscientious objectors and ministers, those courts saying it was an infringement of basic human rights to make no provision for alternative service.
No alternative is offered in South Korea. It’s either military or prison. Even Iran offers exemptions for college students.
For any young man who chooses prison for the sake of his conscience, that decision means having a criminal record follow him around for the rest of his life. Since the law was originally enacted in the 1950s, over 13,000 young men, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been so branded. And they keep adding more, 3 dozen a month.
South Korea is a very class conscious culture, and having a criminal record marks a person for life. Employers and schools have no compunction about refusing someone due to his criminal record.
There is light at the end of the tunnel: On July 7, 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled, in a case involving the country of Belarus, that “States must respect the right to conscientious objection as part of their obligation to respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” In other words, if your country makes no provision for conscientious objectors, you cannot claim you have freedom of religion.
Perhaps someone should tell Korea that?
If you are of a mind to do so, the president of Korea is Lee Myung-bak. You can address a snail-mail letter to him at: