Conscientious objection in South Korea

A young movement in search of direction In March 2003 an international conference on conscientious objection to military service, taking place in Seoul, attracted more than 400 participants over two days. The spectrum of participants was unusually broad: students, human rights lawyers, representatives from the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and representatives from some smaller South Korean parties. The "international" contingent was mainly limited to the resource people:conscientious objectors from Israel and Serbia and Montenegro, the author of thisarticle, as representative of War Resisters' International, a representative from theQuaker United Nations Office and the Office of the High Commissioner forHuman Rights in Geneva, from the Taiwanese alternative service administration,and from the German Central Office for the Rights and Protection of Objectors toMilitary Service for Reasons of Conscience. The resource people were met bya young conscientious objectors' movement in search of its direction. HistoryIn South Korea, public interest in conscientious objection is a very recent phenom-enon. Until recently, only members of the Jehovah's Witnesses community and, to alesser extent, of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, refused to perform militaryservice. Their refusal, however, dates back to the times of the Japanese occupation ofKorea before World War II, and again after the Korean War (1950-53) they found themselves imprisoned. Little is know about the fate of Jeho-vah's Witnesses in North Korea; in the "democratic" South they receive regularprison sentences of three years for their refusal to serve--sentenced on a conveyorbelt, 20 COs in one 30-minute trial. More than 1,100 Jehovah's Witnesses andSeventh Day Adventists are currently in prison for conscientious objection; morethan 10,000 have spent time in Korea's prisons since the Korean War.Only two years ago a progressive weekly newspaper published a report on the situation of Jehovah's Witnesses COs, and,since then, human rights organisations began to work on the issue. It was theright time: others started to show interest in conscientious objection, and on 17December 2001 Oh Tae-Yong, a Buddhist, publicly declared his conscientiousobjection. This was the beginning of a new movement. The movement The movement for conscientious objection is still small, and at present its image isdominated by human rights organisations. More than 30 NGOs came together toform Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (KSCO), a coalition whichworks for the recognition of the right to conscientious objection.At the other end of the political spectrum, student groups got involved andsome of them publicly declared their conscientious objection. A wide range ofactivities was organised, often in cooperation with KSCO: a benefit concert at oneof Seoul's universities, public meetings, press conferences in front of militaryoffices, seminars on conscientious objection, demonstrations, and petitions.In February 2002 a Manifesto urging the recognition of the right to conscientious objectionwas published, with more than 1,500 signatures, among them many "celebrities". Developments Developments since Oh Tae-Yong's declaration give reasons for hope. The situationof conscientious objectors has already improved slightly. Oh Tae-Yong was notimprisoned, and he began voluntary alternative service in an institution for disad-vantaged people instead. Another conscientious objector, also not a Jehovah'sWitness, Ho Keun Yoo, only spent 17 days in prison in October/November2002, and is now on bail, awaiting trial. Some developments can also be report-ed from the legal front. At the end of January 2002, a judge at a Seoul districtcourt referred the case of a conscientious objector to the Korean ConstitutionalCourt. At issue is the constitutionality of Article 88 of the Military Service Law,which stipulates that those who refuse the draft are subject to up to three years in prison - the right to conscientious objection is not recognised. Judge Park said: "When there is a conflict between theduty of military service and basic constitutional rights like freedom of thought,conscience, and religion, they should be harmonised and rendered compatiblewith each other." "The present court considers Section 88 of the Military ServiceLaw, which refuses to acknowledge any form of conscientious objection to militaryservice on any grounds, including religious or political beliefs, to be a potential threatto a conscientious objector's dignity and pursuit of happiness." However, to datethe Constitutional Court has not reached any conclusions on this issue. A political movement The "international conference" in March was another important step for the SouthKorean CO movement. One thing that surprised me was the strong participationof Jehovah's Witnesses--and even more surprising was that a Jehovah's WitnessCO was invited to speak at an anti-war event organised by students, and that heactually spoke there. By inviting and including representa-tives of the Jehovah's Witness community --something which is usually difficult toachieve, if not impossible--the Korean CO groups acknowledge the special histo-ry of Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea. And the Jehovah's Witnesses themselvesseem to be aware that only a political CO movement in South Korea will be able toaccomplish the right to conscientious objection--already a handful of non-Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to serve have moved further than 10,000 Jeho-vah's Witnesses who went through Korea's prisons. CO and the wider conext At present the South Korean CO movement is searching for its own position inthe political scene. So far, they are closely associated with human rights organisa-tions--to a large extent ignored by the traditional South Korean peace movement,which either sees conscientious objection as too hot a topic (in South Korea the mili-tary is a rarely challenged institution), or as irrelevant. Some groups within KSCO - especially the students - clearly position conscientious objection within the anti-war movement. In the Korean context, of a very real military confrontation between North and South, it is particularly important to crack the myth of a possible military defence of South Korea. In this, conscientious objection can play a very important role. War Resisters' International, 5 Caledonian Rd, London N1 9DX, Britain (+44 20 7278 4040; fax 7278 0444; email; Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (+82 2 852 9086; fax 851 9087; email