South Korea: Historic ruling by the Supreme Court recognising conscientious objection on personal convictions

Korean activists on a protest in support of conscientious objectors

For the first time, the Supreme Court of South Korea upheld a lower court's acquittal of a conscientious objector who refused to perform military service due to his personal convictions other than religious convictions based on Jehovah Witness belief. 

On 24th June, the Supreme Court’s first division upheld a ruling acquitting the 34-year-old defendant — known as Si-woo — on charges of violating the Military Service Act. Until this decision, all conscientious objectors who were acquitted by the Supreme Court were Jehovah's Witnesses, with only one exception who is a reservist conscientious objector (read more about the case of the reservist conscientious objector here). Among those who refused to enlist in active duty service, Siwoo is the first to be acquitted by the Supreme Court. 

In its decision, the Court said “The defendant’s convictions and faith are deeply established and have formed a clear identity. He appears to have refused military service based on his genuine conscience.”

Si-woo, who identifies himself as queer, refused to be drafted in 2017 based on his belief on non-violence and pacifism. In his refusal, he also referred to his negative feelings about the abusive group culture that forces masculinity on people.

As reported by the news website Hankyoreh, following his refusal, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The court ruling said “refusal of induction based on religious conscious or political benefits does not constitute ‘legitimate grounds’ as stipulated in the Military Service Act.”

Following the landmark rulings of the Conscientitional Court and the Supreme court in June and November 2018 respectively, each recognising the right to conscientious objection to military service, the court in Si-woo’s appellate trial ruled to acquit him. In its ruling, the court of appeal concluded that the defendant had “embraced non-violence and anti-war beliefs as an extension of his Christian faith, which emphasizes love and peace, and feminism, with its respect for minorities, and he appears to have refused his military service obligation accordingly.”

The court also said his actions “could not be seen as compromising or strategic.”

In its decision on 24th June, the Supreme Court came to the same conclusion in dismissing the prosecutors’ appeal.

Following the decision, World without War activists commented to WRI that they are expecting further good results in the coming trials and alternative service screenings of other conscientious objectors as well. 

Source: World without War; The Hankyoreh, Supreme Court acquits man who refused enlistment for personal convictions, 24 June 2021; Korea JoongAng Daily, Supreme Court upholds acquittal of military conscientious objector, 24 June 2021. 


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