Jehovah's Witnesses and conscientious objection in Korea

Young-il Hong

The history of conscientious objection on the Korean Peninsula dates back to 1939. As Japanese Jehovah's Witnesses who had refused military service began to be arrested on 21 June, the wave of arresting Jehovah's Witnesses began to sweep through Taiwan on 22 June and Korea on 29 June. As a result, 33 Jehovah's Witnesses were indicted in Korea. Most of the Jehovah's Witnesses working in Korea from 1939 to the end of the second world war were imprisoned on account of conscientious objection.

Shortly after the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South, after the end of World War II, the Korean War broke out. It began on 25 June, 1950, and lasted for three years. During that time Jehovah's Witnesses refused the compulsory conscription for military service by both North Korea and South Korea as conscientious objectors (COs).

During the 1950s and 1960s, COs used to be sentenced to imprisonment from several months up to one year. One imprisonment could usually free them from being conscripted to military service. However, their criminal record made them suffer great social discriminations when finding a job.

The military government, which came to power on 16 May, 1961, began to put pressure on the Korean society. The Regional Reserve Forces, established on 27 December, 1961, began to be intensified. Ex-soldiers who had joined the Jehovah's Witnesses and became COs therefore received corporal punishment and fines. The heavy fines and repeated trials made it impossible for COs to live normal lives and even to earn a living.

The Supreme Court of South Korea ruled on conscientious objection on 22 July, 1969 saying: The so-called conscientious objection does not fall into the category of the freedom of conscience guaranteed under the Constitution Article 17

Entering into 1970s, the military government began to oppress COs in various ways, Jehovah's Witness youths were taken to military training camps by means of various illegal ways. Military training began at high schools in 1970. Jehovah's Witnesses, young students, refused the military training at school and were badly treated with beatings and other corporal punishments. They were forced to drop out of school. Social discrimination began to form. As oppression upon COs became brutal and social discrimination began to intensify in the 1970s, even partial objection to military service by some religions, accepting non-combatant service but refusing military service on Sabbath days, came to a full stop.

The Supreme Court has not recognized the conscientious objection of Jehovah's Witnesses since the 1960s. On 23 July, 1985, and 14 September, 1992, the court ruled against COs and the decisions repeat the same phrase as of 22 July, 1969. What is perplexing is that those decisions do not state why conscientious objection does not fall into the category of the freedom of religion and conscience.

In 1994, when the trend of the cold war eased and the term of military service of the Korean army was reduced from 30 months to 26 months, Article 44 of the Military Criminal Law, a basis for punishing conscientious objection, increased the maximum sentence for mutiny from two years to three years.


Despite the brutal treatment and increased sentence under the military governments, COs of Jehovah's Witnesses in Korea are on the rise (see graphic).

As democratisation develops in Korea, Koreans are coming to have more tolerant views of COs, which lead to the disappearance of the illegal compulsory conscription practices of the Military Manpower Administration since 2002 and has enabled COs who stand in civil courts to get a shorter sentence. Additionally, on 29 January, 2002, one incumbent judge appealed a case of conscientious objection to the Constitutional Court for review, upholding the claim of a defendant that the present military service law, which does not recognize conscientious objection, could be against the Constitution. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses have been punished because of conscientious objection. The number of Jehovah's Witness COs in prison is 767, as of 15 September, 2003.

As South Korea has been implementing a strict military service law, conscientious objection has become the brand mark of Jehovah's Witnesses in Korea, since COs have hardly been found in other religious organisations. The other interesting feature is that the accumulative number of COs imprisoned is much higher than in any other country in the world.

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