Paying the price for refusing military service in South Korea

More than 600 Jehovah's Witnesses jailed in South Korea for being conscientious objectors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 1:17am

Sentencing a young man to 18 months in prison last month for refusing to do his mandatory military service, the judge in the South Korean city of Suwon burst into tears.

The judge had handed down verdicts that day in five other criminal cases without emotion. But the case of Im Chang-jo, a 21-year-old Jehovah's Witness, brought out her sympathies.

Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of a Christian denomination that claims about 8 million evangelical members worldwide, are well known for refusing military service and blood transfusions.

But Im, his brother, and hundreds like them have paid a heavy price for their beliefs in South Korea, which is still technically at war with North Korea. "It is a privilege for me to abide by my conscience and I hope my country allows Jehovah's Witnesses alternative service as soon as possible," Im said in court.

Im joined 669 other Jehovah's Witnesses now jailed in South Korea for refusing military service, according to a June report by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

South Korea accounts for 93.5 per cent of those imprisoned around the world for reasons of conscientious objection, it said.

The Military Manpower Administration (MMA), which ensures every able-bodied South Korean man spends at least 21 months in the army or other services, demanded in March that Im's father fire his son from his farm equipment company for dodging the draft.

Im's mother, Kwon Young-soon, had already been through the courts with her eldest son's refusal to join the army and also sobbed as the verdict was delivered. "I was hoping this wouldn't happen to my youngest boy," she said. "After all these years, nothing has changed."

Im's brother Bosuk, 32, also ended up working at their father's company. He believes his criminal record and the stigma of his refusal to do military service barred him from getting a job at a firm he wanted.

South Korean men who want to work for major companies must provide their status of military service in the application.

The MMA estimates that 6,090 South Korean men have declared opposition to military service between 2004 and mid-2013 on the grounds of religious or moral beliefs. More than 93 per cent of them were jailed.

Opposition lawmaker Jeon Hae-cheol has proposed an amendment giving conscientious objectors the right to perform different forms of service.

"This move is to clear the name of South Korea for being a country with a poor human rights record, despite its strong economic development," he said. But Jeon's move is likely to fail, as have two attempts by other left-of-centre lawmakers in the face of public opposition.

An MMA survey of 2,000 citizens last November showed 54.1 per cent were opposed to allowing people like Im to perform other duties. Im said he would serve his time stoically.

"What we are doing is like Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent resistance - painful at the time but worthwhile in the end," he said.