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‘Why I left Korea to become a refugee’

Lee Ye-da shares why he chose to flee to France and refused mandatory military service

With risks and challenges faced by refugees across the world having become one of the greatest global issues today, the status and conditions of asylum seekers in South Korea have also been highlighted. The Korea Herald will publish a series of articles shedding light on refugees in Korea, their hardships, the systematic fallout, the country’s own history and ways to go forward. The following is the sixth installment. –Ed.

Three years ago, Lee Ye-da, then 23, arrived in Paris. He had only purchased a one-way ticket, having decided to live as a refugee overseas. He chose to leave everything he had ever known -- including his family -- as he was against the obligatory military duty in South Korea.

About 10 months after his arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Lee was granted refugee status in France and was given a renewable visa that let him stay in the country for 10 years. Now 26, Lee is one of a handful of Korean conscientious objectors who are living as refugees overseas. In France he is actively involved in antiwar movements while working at a bagel shop part-time, claiming that refusing mandatory military service should be recognized as a right, instead of a crime, in his home country.

South Korea, a U.S. ally, is technically still at war with North Korea as the Korean War (1950-53) ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. Accordingly, it currently offers no alternative to military duty required for all “able-bodied” men. 
Lee Ye-da (left) participates in a rally protesting against the South Korean government in France. (Lee Ye-da)
Lee Ye-da (left) participates in a rally protesting against the South Korean government in France. (Lee Ye-da)

Refusing to perform the service usually leads to a jail term of one year. Serving a prison sentence for refusing to serve in the military can severely hurt one’s career prospects, as most major companies require all male applicants to share their military service status when they apply for a job.

According to Amnesty International, more than 16,000 Koreans have served jail terms for refusing to serve in the military since the 1950s. Altogether, the men spent more than 3,000 years in prison.

Those who support the current conscription system stress that the South Korean Constitution stipulates that “all citizens shall have the duty of national defense,” along with the duty to pay taxes, work and educate their children. “Serving in the military is one of the four basic duties to be fulfilled by Korean citizens stipulated by the Constitution,” said Yang Wuk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

“The point of the law is all citizens are responsible for protecting the country should there be an attack from foreign forces. If one chooses not to serve the duty, it means he is choosing not to serve one of the very basic duties as a Korean citizen.”

Aside from conscientious objectors, a number of Korean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals are living as refugees in foreign countries. In 2009, a 28-year-old Korean conscientious objector, who was also gay, was granted refugee status in Canada. In 2013, another Korean gay conscientious objector became a refugee in Australia. A number of Korean male-to-female transgender people have left Korea to live as refugees overseas, claiming social and cultural discrimination, as well as difficult job prospects and costly medical treatments not covered by the national health insurance system, make it virtually impossible for them to live with dignity in Korea.

In 2012, Lee, who decided not to serve in the military, had two options at hand. He could go to jail or flee to another country and apply for refugee status. He chose the latter. In an email interview with The Korea Herald, Lee shared his thoughts on his difficult decision to flee his home country, his life as a Korean refugee in Europe and why he thinks it’s important for South Korea to provide an alternative to mandatory military service for conscientious objectors. Edited excerpts follow.

The Korea Herald: What made you want to refuse the mandatory service? 

Lee: Ever since I was young, I haven’t been comfortable with the idea of serving in the military -- without having the option of refusing. I’m sure many other Korean men have felt the same way. When I was 14, I read Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka’s “Buddha,” which is Tezuka’s unique interpretation of the life of the founder of Buddhism. I was deeply inspired by the work and the concept that emphasizes the importance of avoiding killing or harming living things.

I received my draft notice when I was 21, and a friend of mine gave me a book about people who choose to refuse to serve in the Army to express their belief against violence and armed conflicts. That’s when I first learned about the existence of conscientious objectors. From then on, I did my own research about Korea’s participation in wars, including the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan, as well as historical events such as the 1948 Jeju Uprising and the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement. I came to a conclusion that the military (in Korea) has been failing to protect its own citizens. And as an individual I wanted to do something about it. Refusing to serve the duty was my way of doing that. 

K.H: What’s your typical day like in Paris? How do you make a living as a refugee?

Lee: I work at a bagel shop part-time from Wednesday to Saturday. When I’m not working, I volunteer to spend time with migrants who have applied for refugee status and their children, and give antiwar speeches about my experience as a conscientious objector. I’ve been to Japan, Germany and Switzerland to share my experiences. Before I was accepted as a refugee -- it took me about 10 months -- I was given about 300 euros ($325) a month by the French government. After gaining my status, I’ve been receiving about 250 euros a month in government subsidies. I get paid for lectures and speeches and media interviews. I plan to go to school next year. I’ve been making a lot of efforts to learn French.

K.H.: Have you considered the other option -- serving a prison term -- instead of being a refugee overseas?

Lee: I chose to flee the country (instead of serving a jail term) because I wanted to inform the public that in certain foreign countries, being a conscientious objector (faced with criminal charges) alone can be a legitimate reason to attain refugee status, and that refusing to serve in the military is recognized as an individual right. By doing so I wanted to challenge the general (Korean) notion that avoiding the duty is simply unthinkable. 

K.H.: Have you ever regretted your decision?

Lee: Never. I’ve always tried to make life choices that would make me feel proud of myself. Fleeing Korea was simply one of them. I, in fact, met many more people whom I felt connected to after moving to France. I meet a lot of supporters. I’m definitely happier.

K.H: War is what displaced half of the population in Syria. As a conscientious objector, what are your thoughts on the current refugee crisis?

Lee: I don’t think one is responsible for every struggle he or she has to endure. As individuals, we face many things that are beyond our control. In a similar context, I think everyone in the world is partly responsible for today’s wars and what’s happening to those who are forced to uproot their lives to survive. For example, South Korea has sent troops to the Middle East, but did not pay attention to how these wars were affecting the lives of the local civilians there. The point was to stay close to powerful allies. As citizens, we should care about what our governments are doing and how it’s affecting those we don’t know who live on other side of the world.

K.H.: You’ve met other refugees from other countries in France. What has the experience been like?

Lee: I left my home country because of my personal beliefs. My life wasn’t in danger. But I’ve met many people who literally couldn’t have survived if they chose not to uproot their lives. I empathize with fellow refugees with their struggles, and what it meant for them to give up their native language and culture. Spending time with them has made me want to study more on why wars happen and how to protect human rights in a time of crisis.

K.H.: Do you remember anything from the day you arrived to France?

Lee: My mother, who was very much against the idea of me refusing to serve in the military, gave me some cash the day I left Korea. I used the money to get a room at a guesthouse. I remember watching the sunset near the Seine riverside in the evening. It was so beautiful. I remember feeling sad, but was determined to stay true to the decision that I had made.

By Claire Lee (