Conscientious objection helped me to encounter myself

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.

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. 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. 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. I finally decided to get rid of militarism in my life.

In the winter of 2002, I heard the Bush administration announce war against Iraq, saw 9/11 victim families oppose the war. 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.

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. 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. 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.

Changgeun Yeom

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