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Fate of Conscientious Objectors

Fate of Conscientious Obje...

Conscientious objection, on either religious or pacific grounds,  is not recognized by the Republic of Korea (South Korea) where military service is mandatory for all male citizens (with some exceptions) between the ages of 19 and 35; nor does the Korean government provide alternate service options for conscientious objectors.

The country also has three strikes with the United Nations Human Right Committee as it was found to be in breach of its commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), following three separate complaints about the absence of any alternative service program that would allow conscientious objectors to serve their country outside the military. The first judgment was issued in 2007, the next in 2010 and the third in 2011.

According to media reports, in 2007, the Defense Ministry announced an alternative program that would have allowed two conscientious objectors to work at social welfare centers for 36 months to fulfill their ‘military’ obligation. However, in 2008, the government abandoned that alternative citing a poll that showed that 68% of respondents were opposed to alternative service options for conscientious objectors.

Opponents to alternate options cite Korea’s special security situation (there is only a cease fire and no peace treaty between North and South Korea) and the lack of national consensus on the issue as a justification for ignoring the country’s responsibilities under the ICCPR. They also express concern that offering alternatives to military service on the grounds of conscientious objection would result in large numbers of young men declaring themselves to be conscientious objectors just to avoid serving in the military.

During the Japanese colonial period, conscientious objectors (mostly from religions that prohibit serving in the military) were jailed and that practice has continued into the 21st century. In the past the prison term was 3 years but it is now 18 months. However, it can be longer as there have been cases where once the objector has served his sentence he has still been required to serve in the army, which resulted in the imposition of an additional prison sentence. One Jehovah’s Witness is reported to have served three prison terms for a total of 8 years between 1969 and 1981.

Even after their release from prison, conscientious objectors face serious problems. In addition to being ineligible for employment with government/public agencies, both small and large companies in the private sector will not hire them. The stigma of being an ‘ex-con’ or ‘draft-dodger’ follows them for the rest of their lives. Many have difficulty finding a spouse both because of their status and their employment/economic problems.

As a nation still technically at war, Korea takes its compulsory military service requirement very seriously and will prosecute anyone who attempts to avoid it. Over 600 conscientious objectors are imprisoned each year. 

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Image Source - 15 May is the International Day of Conscientious Objection

Last Updated on 2013-01-05

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