South Korea: Legislators criticised for little progress since Constitutional Court ruling

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Korean activists protesting

In June 2018, South Korea's Constitutional Court made a landmark ruling recognising conscientious objection. In its ruling, the Court obligated lawmakers to change the law accordingly and initiate alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors by the end of 2019.

After more than a year since the ruling, the National Assembly is still reviewing the proposed bills on alternative civilian service. There are 18 proposed bills, from different parties including one from the government.

The Korea Herald, referring to government officials, reports that a bill is likely to pass before the end of the year to prevent administrative confusion in drafting soldiers. However, it is not likely that alternative civilian service will be introduced from the beginning of next year.

Lee Nam-woo, chief of the Defense Ministry’s personnel welfare office said “It is already too late to come up with an agreed substitute service system in the next three months.” Lee Nam-woo said alternative civilian service may be introduced in the second half of 2020.

Baek Jong-keon, a conscientious objector and a lawyer advocating for the rights of conscientious objectors said “[I]t is very disappointing that already more than a year has passed without any progress, and that the legislators are moving only now, pressed by the deadline.” Baek Jong-keon said “There are still 900 cases under trial across the country and a greater number of people are still waiting for the alternative service to be introduced.”

On the other hand, the debate about the form of alternative service system continues. There are growing concerns among conscientious objectors and campaigners that the new system will be punitive in nature. For instance, the proposal of the Ministry of Defence, which was made public in December last year, requires conscientious objectors to work twice as long as they would if they joined the military, and limits their service to correctional facilities.

WRI works closely with World without War, our South Korean affiliate, and other campaigners internationally to continue supporting conscientious objectors in South Korea.

Source: The Korea Herald, Conscientious objectors wait for alternative service as legislators remain idle, 23 September 2019; Waging Nonviolence, After historic breakthrough, South Korea’s movement for conscientious objection faces new challenges, 26 February 2019; War Resisters' International, South Korea: Constitutional Court recognises conscientious objection, 04 July 2018.

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