South Korea to legalise conscientious objection

An important step for the South Korean conscientious objection movement

With the announcement of the South Korean Ministry of Defence on 18 September 2007 that it is to allow conscientious objectors to do substitute services in a turnaround from its previous stance four months ago, the South Korean conscientious objection movement achieved an important victory.

While conscientious objection itself has a long history in South Korea, going back to 1939, for a long time it had been completely hidden from the public. Until 2001, almost nobody had been aware that more than 10,000 Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors had spent time in prison for their refusal to perform military service, and even that the Constitutional Court for the first time denied that there is a right to conscientious objection in 1969.

With the emergence of the first non-Jehovah's Witness objectors in 2002, and the formation of Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (KSCO), things began to change slowly. The movement focused on raising public awareness about the issue - and especially about the large number of imprisoned conscientious objectors, often around 1,000 - and a legal strategy, involving domestic and international channels.

On the domestic level, the legal strategy first seemed to fail, after some initial success, which cut down the time of imprisonment from 3 years to 18 months. In 2004, first the Supreme Court and shortly afterwards the Constitutional Court ruled against the right to conscientious objection (see co-update No 1, September 2004). In response to this defeat, two cases of conscientious objectors were taken as individual complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee.

However, on 15 December 2005, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea released its recommendation on human rights issues to the Korean government, also recommending the recognition of the right to conscientious objection. Back then, the Ministry of Defence responded: "The ministry cannot accept the decision even if the commission finally decides to acknowledge conscientious objection."

"The ministry might be able to consider approval when tension between North and South Korea eases and if military human resources are plentiful, and the general public agrees to the idea" (see co-update No 17, February 2006).

In November 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee examined South Korea's periodical report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It concluded: "The State party should take all necessary measures to recognize the right of conscientious objectors to be exempted from military service. It is encouraged to bring legislation into line with article 18 of the Covenant. In this regard, the Committee draws the attention of the State party to the paragraph 11 of its general comment No. 22 (1993) on article 18 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion)" (CCPR/C/KOR/CO/3, 28 November 2006).

In a landmark decision, the Human Rights Committee also decided on the two individual complaints from South Korea. The Committee concluded "that the facts as found by the Committee reveal, in respect of each author violations by the Republic of Korea of article 18, paragraph 1, of the Covenant" (CCPR/C/88/D/1321-1322/2004, 23 January 2007).

The recent announcement of the Ministry of Defence caused a debate in the country. The Defence Ministry plans to hold public hearings and opinion polls before revising laws governing military service for conscientious objectors by the end of next year. The revision is subject to legislative approval.

The move — expected to take effect as early as January 2009 if approved — "is not to recognize the right to refuse the military duty but, to permit an alternative service as part of social service on the premise of public consensus," the ministry said, according to a report by Associated Press.

However, the opposition party announced that it would boycott the move. This leaves the prospects for the new policy in doubt, with President Roh Moo-hyun's term set to expire in February. The related legislation may not even be pursued as planned next year if the conservative Grand National Party (GNP)'s candidate, Lee Myung-bak, wins December's presidential election as strongly suggested by current polls, reports Yonhap News agency.

However, according to government surveys, the recognition of the right to conscientious objection now has majority public support. Those who support the move stood at 23.3 percent in 2005 but the figure jumped to 39.9 percent last year. Right after the announcement on July 10 to introduce the social service system, the support rate surged to 50.2 percent, according to a report by The Hankyoreh on 19 September 2007.

Under the government plan, conscientious objectors would be assigned to do the most intensive jobs at social service workplaces. The Sorok Island Hansen's disease facilities, a tuberculosis hospital in South Gyeongsang Province, and around 200 special medical centers are among the candidate workplaces. Currently, there are 19,500 patients are being treated [at these hospitals], and the government is planning to assign a total of 750 such conscientious objectors to care for patients around the clock. Their service term will likely be 36 months, twice as long as those fulfilling their ordinary military service term.

Unlike ordinary social service providers, conscientious objectors will not have to do the one week of basic military training. And after their service term ends, they will also have to do social service during the same time others spend doing reserve force training.

In addition, conscientious objectors will need to be thoroughly screened to be eligible for the substitute services. Their character and any criminal record will also be under consideration regarding whether they can enter the program.

On the same day the Ministry of Defence announced its plan to legalise conscientious objection, the South Korean Cabinet approved a proposal by the Defence Ministry to reduce the compulsory service term for ordinary conscripts by six months by 2014. Under the current law, all physically fit South Korean men ages 18 to 30 must serve at least two years in the military.

Sources: Young-il Hong: Jehovah's Witnesses and conscientious objection in Korea, The Broken Rifle No 59, November 2003; Associated Press:  S.Korea may allow alternative service, 18 September 2007, Yonhap News Agency, News Summary 19 September 2007, The Hankyoreh, 19 September 2007