Changes in Korea's treatment of conscientious objectors

Jung-min Choi

It has now been 1 year and 8 months since an adjudication on the constitutionality of the current Military Service Act was filed in January, 2002. There has been no judgement made so far. President Roh Moo-Hyun responded positively on the revision of acts related to alternative service when he was a candidate for presidential election. However, his new government has not taken any concrete steps. In the South Korean National Assembly, several lawmakers had initiated to legislate an act for alternative service in early 2001, only to fail due to the strong opposition by conservative Christian groups. Since then, there have been no activities. The current situation for the revision of the Act for conscientious objectors in the areas of legislation, judicature and administration is at a standstill.

In the past Korean society, the punishment had been arbitrarily imposed on the objectors whenever a new administration took office. However, as the conscientious objection issue grows and develops to a serious movement, many changes are being made. The most obvious change has come in the area of punishment. The objectors had been sentenced to the full penalty of the law, with no exceptions (The full penalty for conscientious objection varied under each administration. The term had been 3 years since 1994). Presently, judges sentence to 1 year and 6 months. This can be regarded as the least penalty within the law because one is redrafted when he is sentenced with less than 1 year and 6 months according to the current military service act.

Another big change is that from July this year the objectors were allowed to have religious services inside the correctional facilities. Most South Korean objectors have a religious background and it is their main reason for objection. The Seoul government firmly stuck to the position that no religious services should be allowed in the correctional facilities because the reason for their crime lay in their religion.

These days, more and more cases of discharged servicemen refusing reserve military drills have been reported. However, their situation is worse than those of conscientious objectors. After discharge from service, one belongs to the reserve forces. If a reserve soldier refuses to be mustered for reserve drills, he either pays a fine of 5 million won (about 4,000 USD) or less, or gets sentenced to up to 3 years in jail, according to Article 15, Clause 4 of the Establishment of Homeland Reserve Forces Act. Even after this punishment, the duty of serving in the reserve forces is imposed repeatedly until the reserve service ends. It is a serious problem because of the repetition of punishment for the same case. The accumulated amount of fines can be too much for an objector to pay and thus it can threaten his life. Recently, there was a case of a reserve service objector who finished his two sentences, one 10 months and the other 8 months, but later was remustered for reserve drill because he did the two times seperately, which is a repeating vicious cycle.