Answering Conscientious Objection to Military Service


- For another invisible Lee Gil-jun

Kyoung Soo, Park-jeong

I have given a lot of thought about conscientious objection since I was 21 years old. That was when I first heard the word "conscientious objection to military service", and learned that some Koreans were indeed preparing to publicly declare themselves as COs. Oh Tae Yang's objection to the military did not shock me but showed me a world I'd never seen before, and brought endless questions to me. Although I couldn't find any clear-cut answer to those questions, I couldn't escape them. The only thing I could do about it was just go to college so that I can postpone the enlistment.

The next year, a US Army armoured car ran over two Korean middle school girls. While the dead girls were not able to speak for themselves, the rest of us couldn't remain silent. We had to do something about the tragedy, and people started taking the streets with candles one after another. Finally, tens of thousands of people gathered at Seoul Square to rally for the dead.

The year 2003 saw the war in Iraq. But we already knew that Iraq was not the only war zone; that thousands of people are dying everyday in many corners of the world, and we can actually hear them, here in South Korea, screaming in pain. Why do they have to die? With a lot of questions in mind, I just joined rallies against the war. These thoughts first made my heart sore, and then I chanted myself hoarse.

While questions posed by conscientious objection to military service didn't have any definite answers, they had to be answered within a definite time limit. I couldn't put off making a choice forever. My acquaintances chose to declare objection one after another, and the writings of one of them convinced me that I couldn't sidestep any longer. I came to think that I have to make efforts to prevent a war, not to win it; that I have to take the path of nonviolent direct action, just like Jesus Christ did. I was not entirely sure whether it was the best answer to my questions, but I couldn't come up with a better one.

Prison life was full of challenges. I struggled with the daily labour, strained relationships among inmates and mental violence. The hustle and bustle in the small space forced me to develop general scepticism about human decency, because all I could see on the faces of inmates were anger and frustration.

It is funny that the first thing I had to do after release was go to see a dentist. In prison I had once had a severe toothache which didn't allow me to sleep for two weeks. But I couldn't have my tooth pulled out. Whenever I went to the medical service department almost crying with pain, the same answer was given. In prison, the basic medical care of pulling out one's tooth was a dangerous thing to do. To this day I can't forget the department employee who menacingly said "Don't blame us even if something goes wrong pulling out your wisdom tooth".

Going to the dentist's office, I felt like I was turning back time. I think I wanted to remove lingering memories of prison life as I was having my tooth removed. Even memories of the most trifling matters in prison brought about awful pain like a decayed tooth. While I knew what I wanted to forget, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I still had some fundamental questions unanswered. Conscientious objection to military service wasn't enough for me.

"Would I be free, or live a restrained life?"

I was always anxious to know how my life was going to be after serving prison time. Although I felt my mind unburdened when I declared objection after many years of affliction, I had some fear of constraints that would be placed on me for the rest of my life. Since I was released from prison, I am always introduced as a CO. Sometimes it is too much to handle. In fact, it is uncomfortable to be labelled based on a choice I made several years ago. We always have to lead a life answering questions of the present, but I don't seem to be doing so. I'm sticking to the past when I'm saying "I declared my conscientious objection". It makes a favourable impressions on some people, but not on others. Asking myself if my life is free or rather restrained, I may have to choose the latter.

I was released in the year 2008, and the world was somewhat unfamiliar to me. There was a change in the government, and every aspects of society seemed to be going backwards. In a few months, however, the streets were flooded with people again, who were protesting against the government's decision to lift the ban US beef imports. They didn't like the way the government keeps justifying its position while neglecting people's health and safety. But it was the president's high-handed approach to public dissent, including police crackdowns, that really outraged them. He stuck to his initial position to the end of the crisis.

During those months of protests, I felt rather helpless. I was exhausted with prison life, and I couldn't really brace up myself. When people took to the streets, I often said to myself "I'm released on parole". I thought there was nothing I can do. Although it was all right to join them as long as I kept myself away from the riot police in order not to be arrested, I just tried to find an excuse. Then came Lee Gil-jun[1] who empowered me. Or, to be more accurate, those who were helping him empowered me. Although it was very impressive that Lee refused to follow orders, I was more embarrassed to see people protecting him on sit-in strike day and night. I don't know what I wanted to avoid at that time.

These days I help those who live near US military bases and are suffering damages. There are about 27,000 US soldiers in South Korea, and many people living around their bases suffer from crime, damage from military exercise and noise. As I began working on this issue, I felt like I was at the starting line again - thinking back to the two middle school girls killed by a US armoured car whose deaths set me thinking about conscientious objection. Until my time in prison I have thought that I didn't really understand people saying that South Korea was still at war. I briefly agreed to it only when I see some news about North Korea. But still there are people suffering damages caused by the military. The very existence of the military means that some forms of war is constantly going on in society, and those living around bases and suffering damages are actually the victims of war.

People looking at Lee Gil-jun might have thought so. They might have wanted to encourage him, and protect him as someone who in struggling against injustice had put his very life at risk. That's what I'm thinking about those who have no choice but to live around US bases. There's nothing amazing about there daily lives. But they had to cope with the invisible shadows of war. I thought that I should live a life helping and encouraging them, and taking a step closer rather than turning my back against them - for another Lee Gil-jun out there, although they are not so visible now.

[1]Lee Gil-jun is a member of the riot police who refused orders to disperse the candlight protests that began in May 2008.

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