Jail, stigma await South Korean men who refuse military service

SUWON, South Korea Wed Aug 28, 2013 2:46am EDT

South Korean soldiers walk through smoke as they take part in an anti-terror and security drill at the Integrated Government Complex in Sejong, south of Seoul, in this April 17, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/ Files

South Korean soldiers walk through smoke as they take part in an anti-terror and security drill at the Integrated Government Complex in Sejong, south of Seoul, in this April 17, 2013 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji/ Files

SUWON, South Korea (Reuters) - Sentencing a young man to 18 months in prison in July 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, a U.S. ally technically still at war with North Korea, its unpredictable relative with nuclear ambitions and one of the world's largest armies.

"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 percent of those imprisoned around the world for reasons of conscientious objection, it said.

The Military Manpower Administration, 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 she 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.

All of those in jail are Jehovah's Witnesses, says activist Yang Yeo-ok of World Without War, a lobby group.

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


The Military Manpower Administration 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 percent of them were sent to jail.

Opposition lawmaker Jeon Hae-cheol proposed an amendment to the current session of parliament that would give 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 told Reuters.

Jeon's move is likely to fail, as have two attempts by other left-of-center lawmakers in the face of public opposition.

A survey of 2,000 citizens last November by the Military Manpower Administration showed 54.1 percent of them were opposed to allowing people like Im to perform other duties.

"If they are denying military service based on their conscience, does that mean we have no conscience?" said Kim Jung-nyun, a 25-year-old who served in the army as an assistant instructor teaching new soldiers basic war skills.

"It demoralizes discharged soldiers like me who sacrificed two years of our prime time for the country."

Tensions between the two Koreas have stayed high since their 1950-53 war ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

The bellicose, isolated North threatened the South with nuclear annihilation this year. In 2010, it sank a South Korean ship and shelled a South Korean island, killing civilians.

Kim Byung-ryull, a professor at Korea National Defense University also had little sympathy for objectors.

"Conscience is a much more convenient excuse to shirk civilian duties than breaking bones or pulling out healthy teeth," he said.

Im, talking with Reuters before the verdict, knew he would go to prison and said he would serve his sentence stoically.

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

(Editing by David Chance and John O'Callaghan)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (8)
bunderwo wrote:
It’s a shame South Korea is allowing this gross human rights violation to mar the record of what is otherwise a very progressive country. The comments of those young men who did serve tell the tale: ‘We had to do it, why should they get a pass?’ ‘If your conscience doesn’t let you serve, does that mean I have no conscience?’ Well, no. Conscience, by its nature, is going to vary from one person to another. Witnesses are Christians, and their leader said, ‘Those who take to the sword will perish by the sword.’ (Matthew 26:52)
Early Christians understood Jesus’ words to mean refusing military service. In his book The Early Church and the World, Professor C. J. Cadoux wrote: “Up to the reign of Marcus Aurelius at least, no Christian would become a soldier after his baptism.” These young Korean Witness men are merely trying to live up to Jesus’ words as carefully as possible. They are not trying to impose their consciences on others. South Korea needs to join the rest of the civilized world and create a civilian alternative to military service. If they were to require these young men to build roads, shovel snow, or pick up garbage, they would quickly see that these men are not shirkers.

Aug 28, 2013 11:56am EDT  --  Report as abuse
tpvero wrote:
Prison is better than coming home in a box because you have a general or president who doesn’t know what they are doing. Modern wars and most of ancient wars are started and fought by the wealthy so they can get richer and take something that doesn’t belong to them. They lie about the causes and dress it up with religion to get the weak minded to go die for them, while they and their children live the good life behind walled estates. ‘We the people’ around the world need to wise up.

Sep 01, 2013 7:27am EDT  --  Report as abuse
shannon_ak wrote:
The United States government imprisoned THOUSANDS of Jehovah Witnesses for conscientious objection during World War II. Nazi Germany sent a like number to the concentration camps. Being a C.O. is no more “convenient” than causing personal physical injury to “dodge” military service. In fact, I dare say it takes more courage to say no, and be honest about the reason, than to cause some temporary physical harm to oneself, but as MLK Jr once wrote, if one breaks an immoral law to bring attention to the law’s immorality, one must be prepared to accept the punishment for breaking the law. Ask yourself, which seems to be the purer form of cowardice?

Sep 01, 2013 7:48am EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

A tourist takes a plunge as she swims at Ngapali Beach, a popular tourist site, in the Thandwe township of the Rakhine state, October 6, 2013. Picture taken October 6, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun (MYANMAR - Tags: SOCIETY) - RTR3FOI0

Where do you want to go?

We look at when to take trips, budget considerations and the popularity of multigenerational family travel.   Video