Conscientious objection remains social conundrum

2013-01-28 20:14

Yang Ji-woon (left) and Yoon Sook-kyung, parents of two conscientious objectors who served prison terms, speak during an interview with The Korea Herald last week. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Son In-cheol, a 27-year-old freelance translator, feels hopeless and scared at the thought of having to live in prison with those convicted of homicide, rape, drug abuse, fraud and other crimes unthinkable for him.

While awaiting a Supreme Court decision over his refusal to serve in the military due to his religious beliefs, he is also frustrated about social disadvantages and prejudice against so-called “conscientious objectors.”

“I feel like I’m leading a limited life as it is certain that unless the government acts or the legislature moves to help people like me, I will be driven into a correctional facility in the end. I didn’t hurt, kill or defraud anybody,” he told The Korea Herald.

“I will not be able to apply for a decent job at big-name companies, public firms or organizations due to the criminal record. But I am not ashamed at all of my decision as I am confident before my God and proud to uphold my faith.”

If the top court upholds a lower court’s decision to slap him with an 18-month jail term, he would be an addition to some 17,000 people who have been incarcerated for their objection to military service since the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War.

More than 600 people, who are mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, are put in jail each year for refusing to serve in the military. They are mostly sentenced to 18 months ― the minimum penalty that can exempt them from conscription. They are usually released on parole with about four months left before the end of their terms.

Their calls for alternative non-military services, such as social services to help the physically challenged and senior citizens, have been muted under the name of national security.

The Defense Ministry has long argued that as a provocative North Korea still poses a grave security threat and with a possible troop shortage due to the aging, shrinking population, it is difficult to heed to their calls for alternative services.

“Considering the current security situation, issues of fairness and national consensus, introducing alternatives for those who refuse to join the military and grab guns is inappropriate,” a senior ministry official said, declining to be named.

Concern over a troop shortage has recently been growing as President-elect Park Geun-hye pledged to shorten the compulsory service term by three months to 18 months. Military officials and experts have argued that given that North Korean troops are to mandatorily serve in the military for up to 10 years, such a plan could undermine the country’s combat readiness.

Although they are well aware of such security concerns, parents of the religious objectors find it difficult to accept the agony their entire families must suffer. Yoon Sook-kyung, a mother of three sons, feels saddened as she watches her second son struggling to adapt to normalcy after finishing his jail term about a month ago.

“My son keeps reporting to me that he is going somewhere, even when he goes to the bathroom, as he was required to report every move to correctional officers,” she said.

“He does not turn off the light at night as the prison leaves the light on at night (for security reasons). During his term, we parents pray for them and live as if we were put in jail.”

Her first two sons have already served in jail for objecting to military service. She feels gloomy, thinking that her youngest son, who has yet to get the conscription call, will have to face a jail term as well.

“Think about how traumatic it is for mothers and fathers to watch their sons being put on trial, taken to prison with their hands bound and serving time in jail with other criminals,” she said.

“The law also has its obligation to uphold the right of minorities. Does the law exist to speak only for the majority, while voices of minorities have to be disregarded like this?”

Above all, what is crucial is a national consensus over how to help alleviate their agony. But it seems to be a tough sell, particularly to young men who are mandated to serve in the military for at least 21 months.

“I believe what the objectors strive to protect is a relative value that a special group of people regards as crucial. It is not an absolute value universally upheld by all citizens,” said Lee Ju-young, a 27-year-old male student in Seoul.

“Our nation is under special security circumstances where North Korea remains a constant military threat. As the value is subjective in nature, their value can’t outweigh the absolute value of security.”

The long-simmering issue returned to the limelight earlier this month when a Seoul district court called for a judicial review of the military conscription law. It is the eighth time that such a constitutional review had been called for.

A provision in the draft law stipulates a punishment of up to three years in jail for those who object to mandatory military service without justifiable reasons.

While submitting his request for the review, Kang Young-hoon, judge at the Seoul Northern District Court, said that giving conscientious objectors criminal punishments is against “the legal protection of” human dignity.

“If earnest conscience against killing somebody is formed, the decision not to perform military service should be respected and protected,” he also said, stressing that the violation of an individual’s basic right through legal punishment is more serious than gains in terms of national interest.

Baek Jong-keon, a lawyer in charge of a defendant who has requested the judicial review, expressed hope that the Constitutional Court might reflect the changing social attitude toward conscientious objection.

“In the legal academic circles, they have converged on the international perspective of human rights that punishing conscientious objection conflicts with the protection of an individual’s religious conscience,” he said.

“But the Constitutional Court may have to consider not only this academic perspective of human rights, but also security realities and political factors. But hopes have emerged as the camp of President-elect Park Geun-hye and society in general appear to share the need to pay more heed to the human rights aspect of this issue.”

Baek himself is a conscientious objector. He has requested a constitutional review of the conscription law, during which the court proceedings for his case are put on hold.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee has repeatedly recommended that Seoul take measures to help military objectors such as removing their criminal records and recognizing their right to object to military service.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun sought to introduce alternative services, but his plan was bogged down in the face of opposition from the military and conservative civic groups.

By Song Sang-ho (