15th of May: Documentation on Conscientious Objection in South Korea



Andreas Speck

The extremely difficult situation of conscientious objectors in South Korea has so far not been known to a broader public. Until only a few years ago, it has not even been known to those working on conscientious objection internationally, including War Resisters' International.

Even in South Korea itself it was only in 2001 that conscientious objection became known to the public, despite the fact the Jehovah's Witnesses went to prison in their thousands since 1939 for their conscientious objection to military service (see The Broken Rifle No 59, November 2003). Also War Resisters' International's own global survey on conscientious objection from 1998, “Refusing to bear arms”, only states: “The right to conscientious objection is not legally recognized and there are no provisions for substitute service.
In 1997 the government clearly stated: "there exists no procedure for obtaining the status of conscientious objector (...) no substitutionary service exists".
In the 80s and 90s there have been some reports of Jehovah's Witnesses getting sentenced to three years' imprisonment for refusing to perform military service, but no further details are known about this.”
We now know that while this was written, probably hundreds of Jehovah's Witnesses were serving three year prison sentences for their conscientious objection.
War Resisters' International was first contacted by Karin Lee, the representative of the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC) in North-East Asia, in 1999 with questions about conscientious objection. Even then, the situation of conscientious objectors in South Korea was very much unknown. I remember being asked if it will be possible for South Korea to achieve the right to conscientious objection without people going to prison – a question which showed that those investigating this question did not know that hundreds were serving prison sentences.
As Jungmin Choi wrote in The Broken Rifle in November 2003, only in early 2001 South Korean peace and human rights organisations became aware of the fact that hundreds and thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses went to prison for their conscientious objection since 1939. She writes: “Since the formation of the Korean army, over 10,000 objectors (mostly Jehovah's Witnesses) have spent time behind bars. The public has treated them as nonexistent.”
In December 2001, with the public declaration of the first non-Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector, the pacifist and buddhist Oh Tae-yang, the South Korean conscientious objection movement was born. Although it has not yet achieved the legal recognition of the right to conscientious objection, it has come a long way since.
I remember the first time representatives from South Korea participated in a WRI meeting, in Turkey in September 2001. Back then, the political agenda of those working on conscientious objection was very much shaped by human rights issues. Since then, the movement has embraced issues of antimilitarism, nonviolence and feminism, and has broadened its political perspective. The war on Iraq, and South Korea's participation in this war, highlighted by the conscientious objection of Cheol-min Kang on 21 November 2003 (see co-alert, 21 November 2003, http://wri-irg.org/news/htdocs/21112003c.html). Kang had enlisted as a conscript in August 2003, and declared his conscientious objection in protest against the war in Iraq.
All this was very visible when War Resisters' International went to South Korea in 2005, for its international seminar “Peace in North-East Asia” and its Council meeting, co-organised with a coalition of South Korean peace organisations (see http://wri-irg.org/news/2005/reportseminar-en.htm).
On the political and legal side, some of the achievements of the South Korean CO movement are:

  • a ground breaking decision of the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the right to conscientious objection to military service, clearly stating that not to provide for conscientious objection is a violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
  • a recommendation of the South Korean National Human Rights Commission to recognise the right to conscientious objection;
  • even an announcement of the South Korean Ministry of Defence that they would introduce a right to conscientious objection, although after a change of government they renounced this earlier statement.

Now, after the administration of President Myungbak Lee took office on 25 February 2008, the conscientious objection movement is in a difficult situation. The conservative backlash threatens the achievements of the movement, in spite of several hundreds more individual complaints having been submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. While, according to international law, South Korea is under a clear obligation to recognise the right to conscientious objection, the conservative government and a strong militarist current in society lead a strong opposition to recognising this right, and fulfilling South Korea's obligation under international law.
With this documentation, and with International Conscientious Objection Day 2009 – 15 May – focusing on South Korea, War Resisters' International wants to support the South Korean movement at a time when international solidarity is urgently needed.
This documents includes a range of article and documents which provide a comprehensive overview of the situation of conscientious objectors in South Korea. It gives an introduction to the CO movement, provides moving stories of individual conscientious objectors, and documents the most important decisions of South Korean and international bodies on the right to conscientious objection in relation to South Korea.

We hope that you will join us in our support for conscientious objectors in South Korea.

Andreas Speck
War Resisters' International
Conscientious Objection Campaigning Worker


CO essay's


Attached file
Programmes & Projects

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