Special Focus on Conscientious Objection in South Korea

Jung-min Choi

Only early in 2001 the concept of "objection to military service" became known to the Korean public. A current affairs magazine reported on a forum on the military service system, including the right to conscientious objection. It especially reported on the history of Jehovah's Witnesses CO. Since the formation of the Korean army, over 10,000 objectors (mostly Jehovah's Witnesses) have spent time behind bars. The public has treeted them as nonexistent.

Korea has long history of military dictatorships. Under the slogan "the richer the country, the better the living conditions of the people", governments made great efforts to boost economic growth, interested in nothing but the GNP. The military confrontation with North Korea was used to create obedience and unity. The core of Korean militarism was and is compulsory military service. Obviously, conscientious objection could not be accepted, and COs have been treated harshly.

The first stage of a CO movement

Back in 2001 it was a taboo to talk about issues such as the military system, soldiers' human rights, and conscientious objection. Frankly speaking, we too had doubts about our ability to work on such a controversial issue. As expected, one week after our forum Seoul Police started to investigate three antimilitarist websites which also provided information on evading military service. In response to this, several peace and human rights groups organised a symposium, and publised a report to dismantle the taboo, to bring into the open the issue of 50 years of imprisonment of conscientious objectors, and the right to conscientious objection.

Public sympathy has grown since. Increased awareness of the painful history of objectors and their families has played a role in this. In a poll conducted by a newspaper, more than 50% accepted the right to conscientious objection. The idea that it is possible to object to military service provoked a very important momentum in Korea, especially among university students and young activists who still have to serve in the military. With the spread of the idea, we received an increasing number of phone calls and emails requesting information on CO. In December 2001, a pacifist and buddhist, Oh Tae-yang, declared his conscientious objection, and turned CO into a political issue, linked to the relations between North and South Korea, and national security.

COs -- a threat to national security?

In 2002 several human rights groups formed "Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection" (KSCO), and a judge appealed to the Constitutional Court because he had doubts about the constitutionality of the present Military Service Law. Since Oh Tae-yang's CO declaration, political CO has increased. So far, a total of eigth people have declared their conscientious objection. When the university student Na Dong-hyuk declared his CO, 20 more students pledged to object to military service when they receive their call-up orders. KSCO receives an increasing number of requests from people considering conscientious objection, so we set up a regular meeting for young people who are worried about their situation. In winter 2002, we organised a "CO School", where we offered information and gave the opportunity to deepen the understanding of the CO issue.

With the spread of the CO movement in Korea, especially among young people affected by military service, the Korean government started to respond. The Ministry of Education served each university and college with guiding principles that block the spread of the CO movement, and the Ministry of Defense released a statement opposing the right to CO. Also, then-president Kim Dae-jung gave an address that he can't accept CO rights.

US attacks on Iraq, and...

The US attacks on Iraq had a huge impact on the Korean society. For the first time many people raised their voice against a war and for peace, in relation to a country other than Korea. Many peace activists went to Iraq to try to stop the war and to be a witness. When the issue of deployment of Korean troops came up, the antiwar movement got broader. Towards the end of the war, another CO, Kim Do-hyung, declared his objection. In a press conference he said that he feels sorrow when he sees the US attacks on Iraq. He said that the deployment of Korean troops made him determined to refuse military service, as he did not want to join an army involved in an unjust war.

Problems to be solved

Earlier this year, the group "People Sharing Conscience", which supports COs, changed its name to "World Without War". Some CO activists participated in the International CO Day training in Israel. In Korea we organised a peace camp for COs and antimilitarist activists. Though more or less inexperienced, this was the first time such a camp took place in Korea. A new documentary on conscientious objection was finally completed, and shown for the first time in public. We now expect it to tour Korea, and to be widely used. We plan the CO peace campaign on Koreas streets and prepare for "Prisoners for Peace Day" on December 1st.

It is a paradox that Korea, a country that has a long history of struggle for democracy, has only three years history of struggling for COs. There are only a few COs yet, and it may need a lot of time to generate public support. But it is obvious that the CO movement provides a new perspective for another world, and although it moves forward slowly, it does so with a lot of power.