International Conscientious Objection Day

Every year, 15th May marks International Conscientious Objection Day (CO day) - a day to celebrate those who have, and those who continue, to resist war, especially by refusing to be part of military structures.

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International Conscientious Objectors' Day is observed around the world on 15th of May. It has been observed with nonviolent actions since 1986. This year the focus of the day is on South Korean conscientious objectors' (CO) poor human rights situation. International Conscientious Objectors' Day is organized by War Resisters' International (WRI) and its affiliated organizations.
 South Korea does not recognise the right to conscientious objection. Objectors to military service are sentenced to 18 months in prison. On March 31st , 458 COs were serving their sentences.

I have an American friend who used to stay in Korea a few years ago. And I remember once he said to me that his family in the USA would often tell him to come back before a war would happen between North and South Korea. After hearing what his family said to him, I realised that people outside Korea thought about a war or a military tension even more than the people living in Korea did. (...)

To be liberated or to be incarcerated? It is an unavoidably acute question. The world we live in, at the global level, is constantly at war. Not surprisingly, as of the beginning of January 2009, we can see the war currently continuing in Gaza. The 20th century is remembered as an age of wars and presumably so will be the 21st. The US government started the 'war on terror' against Iraq after the 11 September attacks. The Iraq war was nothing but another dreadful war. Not only were the nation state of Iraq and the terrorists deemed to be enemies of the US, but the US clearly declared this was a war against evil. Clarifying who is evil requires great care.

On 1 December 1 2005, I called a press conference to declare my conscientious objection to military service, with two other conscientious objectors. Since I became active in a university student movement, I had been thinking of becoming a conscientious objector, not as a pacifist but as a radical statement of resistance to the State. Interestingly enough, only after my decision to become a conscientious objector did I begin to try to live as a pacifist.

I participated in student movements during my college years. That experience influenced me even after I graduated, and I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of becoming a soldier loyal to his country. I not only found it difficult to follow orders from any superior without questioning, but was most afraid of the forceful and violent nature of the military culture that builds up the sense of hierarchy.

US Forces have been stationed in the Republic of Korea (ROK) since 1950. Historicallyh, their main role was to deter any possible war threat posed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). However, the USA's Global Posture Review changes the role of US Forces in Korea (USFK) from a stationary army on the Korean peninsula into a regional hub for rapid deployment and capable of pre-emptive strikes.

The Republic of Korea main­tains a strict conscription regi­me. Registration for conscrip­tion is automatic for men in the year they turn 18, followed by medical examination when they are 19. The duty to enlist in the Armed Forces lasts until the age of 31, but in case of draft evaders until 36.

The South Korean conscientious objection movement is still very young. It only dates back to the year 2000, when human rights organisations for the first time organised to highlight the fate of Jehovah's Witnesses, who had gone to prison for their conscientious objection since 1939. Since then, more than 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses had gone to prison for their objection to military service, and many conscripts and also political prisoners had been aware of this, but it did not enter public consciousness. This changed in 2000, and in December 2001 a new movement for conscientious objection was born when Oh Tae-yang, a pacifist and Buddhist, declared his conscientious objection.


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Welcome to this edition of The Broken Rifle, focusing on the situ­ation of conscientious objectors in South Korea. This is not the first time War Resisters' International produced an issue on South Korea – the last time we did so was for Prisoners for Peace Day 2003. At that time, about 750 con­scientious objectors were serving prison sentences for their con­scientious objection.

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