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SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean Go Gong-ju had a choice of serving in the army or doing a stint in jail. He chose jail and became one of the country's several hundred conscientious objectors locked up each year.
"My nerves were shot in prison because I was jailed without committing a crime," said Go, a deeply religious Roman Catholic, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail for refusing to serve.
Military service is mandatory for all able-bodied South Korean men in order to field a fighting force strong enough to deter North Korea's 1.2 million-strong army from attacking.
About 300,000 men are conscripted each year into the military or riot police in South Korea. But every year around 750 men refuse to join on moral grounds, often because they are pacifists.
Prospective recruits unable to actively serve in the military due to health problems usually get desk jobs. But those who object to army service on moral grounds, although are willing to do community service or fill other non-military jobs, go to jail. Calls for alternative service for conscientious objectors have been rebuffed by conservatives who say it would open a new door for draft dodgers in a country where people already go to great lengths to avoid what is typically two years of mandatory military service.
The often grueling military service sets back university studies and delays sometimes lucrative careers in a competitive country where there are enormous social pressures to be high achievers both academically and professionally.
Attempts to avoid military service for health or personal reasons have long dogged the military and officials have become skilled at seeing through false claims.
But avoiding service on moral grounds is a highly emotive issue that conservatives fear could undermine the commitment of the country's youth to spend two years of their lives in the army at a sometimes high personal cost when others do not.
Military pay is minuscule and life in the barracks is harsh.
Service starts at the age of 19, although recruits can defer for a few years depending on their family situation or study plans. For almost all young men, military service interrupts their studies at university or the start of their careers.
"South Korean society seems to lack trust and confidence in the draft system so people are concerned about possible abuse of the alternative service system," said Chun Sangchin, a sociology professor at Sogang University in Seoul.
"Too many people see the draft system as the only, and even a sacred way to serve the country."
Conscientious objectors such as Go often spend the rest of their lives tainted by their decision. Most of the objectors are Jehovah's Witnesses, who say their religion forbids military service.
Criminal records from draft dodging make it difficult for objectors to find good jobs and the issue of army service is often raised by potential employers during job interviews.
"If we are to become a country that sincerely cares about human rights, we should follow international standards and that means alternative service for conscientious objectors," Go said.
Momentum for expanding alternative service picked up in 2005 when South Korea's National Human Rights Commission called on the government to formally recognize conscientious objector status.
The Defence Ministry then floated the idea of expanding alternative service, which was seen by analysts as indicating that military authorities were willing to allow for conscientious objector status.
This led to a backlash from conservative groups such as the Korean Veterans Association.
"Allowing alternative services for conscientious objectors is a dangerous idea that provides an excuse for opportunists to avoid serving in the military. It will harm national security and stir up social conflict," the Veterans Association said in a statement.
Left-leaning lawmakers who controlled parliament until a few months ago when conservatives stormed to victory in an election, tried to change conscription laws, but to no avail.
"There is not enough support in parliament right now for a measure allowing for alternative service for objectors," said Ji Hae-yong, an official with the minor, left-leaning Democratic Labor Party.
The ruling and conservative Grand National Party said it has no plans to introduce legislation.
Objector Go said South Korea needs to realize that those who do not want to serve are not necessarily shirking their duty.
"I want to serve the community and the people I live with, rather than serve the elusive concept of country," he said.
Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Megan Goldin