Conscientious Objection helped me to encounter myself
by Changgeun Yeom
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. Also, I did not want to accept the fact that, once in the army, I must repeatedly receive trainings in destruction which have nothing to do with my dreams. In South Korea, a country which still maintains conscription, there was and still is no way for men to avoid military service, so I just had to keep postponing my enlistment date, feeling uncertain of my future.
In the meantime, in early 2002, I came to learn about conscientious objection. It was only then that the term 'conscientious objection' became well known to the public, even though there had been numerous conscientious objectors for the past sixty years in South Korea. This change can be credited to a small number of peace activists who strongly felt the need to address this issue to Korean society. As I watched the history of conscientious objection unravel from sixty years of forced silence, I felt surrounded by some kind of shock. Even though I knew all along that all sorts of violence and hierarchy were created by the military, I had never had a single thought about refusing military service. So the fact that there had been about ten thousand young men who refused to go the army based on their beliefs surprised me quite a lot. That there can be a different choice and that many young men had been making this decision for a long time made me feel ashamed, because I was just trying to sidestep the problem, making an excuse that it would be impossible for an individual to make any change to such a huge and rigid system as the military or wars in general. I thought that I just had to endure military service despite my opposition to it. As I heard more and more about stories of resisting the military and wars, however, I seriously began to think about making such a decision. Thanks to encouragement and support from friends and colleagues, I came to the conclusion that I should refuse the military service and also decided to do something to promote peace. I finally decided to get rid of militarism in my life.
Soon afterwards, I started looking for peace-related activities. At that time I was considering working for the Afghan people who were suffering from the US invasion. In the winter of 2002, I heard the Bush administration announce war against Iraq, saw 9/11 victim families oppose the war, and watched people in the Middle East protest against the US invasion, all of which made me decide to participate in the Iraq anti-war movement. Along with friends and colleagues, I co-organised anti-war activities and also went to Iraq to stay with people for quite some time. In Iraq, I could hear what was on the mind of the people who were living day by day suffering from the war. Meanwhile, the South Korean government and parliament passed the Korean troop deployment plans for the Iraq war.
On 13 November 2003, the day I was supposed to enlist in the army, I did not answer the order from the Korean military and instead had a dinner with my activist friends. A few days later, the police called saying that they wanted to investigate me since I did not enlist on my enlistment date. After several interrogations, I went on trial. The judge decided to detain me without asking me a single question, and I was imprisoned on the same day. About one and a half months later, the court allowed me out on bail, but one year later I faced a trial and got imprisoned again. During the next seven months, I faced the second and third trials while in jail, and the court found me guilty and sentenced me to 1 year and 6 months in jail.
The dark building called prison, which looked just about to sink, revealed its old and heavy concrete body on my first day in jail. The shabby-looking cell, which was barely enough for two adults to lie down, accommodated five or six inmates. The small toilet was built in a way that you could be seen completely from outside while you are inside it, and you also had to use it to wash the dishes as well as yourself. The solid walls of the cell suffocated my consciousness, though a handful of light and wind coming through bars on the small window gave me a sense of what the outer world was still like. The inmate clothing supplied, rubber shoes, small corridors, numerous steel gates and steel bars continuously made me tense. I remained heavy and anxious and felt depressed by the fact that I had to endure 545 days and nights here.
Unlike in the past, there is no longer torture or physical violence in South Korean prisons. Instead of putting bodies to death, the modern prison restricts time and space, which are two of the foundations of a human's life. Taking time and space away is a way of suspending life. The human within the prison becomes desperately obsessed with time and space as if trying to refuse death. In a way, prison was a quasi-death experience for me. A sense of frustration with your life. A lack of sympathy for others. A soul which shrinks just like the tiny cell that I was in. An encounter with your own superficiality and hypocrisy. It was a painful sense of loneliness which struck the same chord as words like loss or death. Just as a scenery becomes shadowed by the darkness of night, my inner self soon began to erode within the grey prison. The prison not only restrains your physical body but also darkens your inner body. It always seemed to give me an order that I must endure all these things.
In prison you get forced to do things you don't want. But now that I think about it, conscientious objection helps you talk to yourself, meet your inner side, and encounter clashes with yourself. You get to realise that peace starts when you start looking at the otherness within yourself. Only then the sympathy with others can continuously be maintained. While I regret having had no chance to make such efforts and preparations before going to prison, it is clear that I will pursue it as my future agenda.