Judge Kim Jin-wook of the Seoul South District Court cleared two Jehovah’s Witnesses of violating the Military Service Act, in the latest addition to a string of court rulings in favor of conscientious objectors. The men, both aged 23 years old, were charged with disobeying the government’s order to enlist in the military in 2014 because of their faith.
The judge said their noncompliance had “justifiable reasons” and it was due to the government’s “negligence” to provide alternative ways to serve the country.
Under a universal conscription system, South Korea requires all able-bodied men to serve in the military for at least 21 months. It is a core part of the country’s defense against North Korea. The two Koreas are still technically at war, as the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
There are about 20,000 conscientious objectors in South Korea who have gone to jail for refusing to serve in the armed forces on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience or religion since military service became compulsory for all able-bodied men during the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Conscientious objectors have been uniformly sentenced to 18 months in prison.
“Korea was presented with specific measures to adopt an alternative military program in 2007 and five relevant legislative bills, but all of them were discarded without being discussed,” the judge said.
“If they were sufficiently reviewed, the country could have enacted a law (on the alternative service system) and implemented it, but that didn’t happen, because of the country’s negligence,” he said, addressing the need to solve the “unconstitutional state” by establishing an alternative military program.
This year alone, more than 30 conscientious objectors have been acquitted. But the Supreme Court maintained that conscientious objection is illegal, overturning the acquittals on 16 cases this year.
Still, there are rising hopes for a change.
Both nominees for chief justices at the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court signaled at their support for adopting an alternative military service program in the country.
The Constitutional Court ruled against conscientious objection twice, in 2004 and 2011, prioritizing national defense over individual rights. A decision has been pending with the court since a petition was filed in 2011.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)