The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of conscientious objectors to military service has aroused public uproar.
Hundreds of online petitions against the ruling have appeared on the presidential office’s website. “If every adult male is exempt from mandatory military service on conscientious, religious grounds, who will protect our country?” a petitioner posted. “The ruling demoralizes servicemen on both active and reserve duties,” another said.
Opposition to conscientious objection to military service is not likely to be subsided easily.
There are concerns the ruling will be used as a lawful pretext by many young men unwilling to fulfill military duty. The ruling is a potential Pandora’s Box.
It may be progressive in light of human rights, but has risks in light of national security.
The nation may look peaceful on the surface, but it adjoins North Korea, which has threatened it with a 1.2 million-strong regular army and weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological and chemical ones.
Tolerance for minorities should be respected if a nation is not in a grave security situation. But it is questionable if South Korea is in a situation where it can do so now.
The ruling is expected to affect the active cases of about 930 conscientious objectors. Lower courts are widely expected to follow the top court’s ruling.
Another issue is that most conscientious objectors are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Will the court acknowledge believers in other religions or denominations as conscientious objectors if they argue that they are?
The court should be able to distinguish between a person’s true beliefs and someone pretending to have those beliefs. Concrete and convincing criteria must be fixed before anything else.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was hasty and caused chaos.
The Constitutional Court ruled in June that it was constitutional to punish conscientious objectors as offenders. But it ruled the absence of alternative civilian service unconstitutional. This sent a message that conscientious objection may be acknowledged after a legal system on alternative service for conscientious objectors is established.
Then the Supreme Court went a step further, ruling religious beliefs as valid for objection to military duty even as alternative service regulations have not yet been made.
Most young men enter service dutifully. If the conscientious objectors on trial are found not guilty in accordance with the top court’s ruling, many now serving in the military could feel justifiably deprived.
If they are found not guilty, they will be exempted from military service and, more than that, will not perform any alternative service due to a lack of the related law. This undermines the equality of duty, which is a value to be protected by the Constitution.
It would have been appropriate if the top court had waited for the National Assembly to legislate alternative service before ruling on conscientious objection. The government and parliament must now try to establish rules on alternative service quickly.
The kernel of the rules is fairness. Above all, young men willing to complete military duty must not be made to feel as if they get the short end. Be that as it may, alternative service must not be punitive. It is important to balance active military service and alternative civilian service.
The Ministry of National Defense is reportedly considering a 27-month or 36-month service at correctional facilities or fire departments. It is also collecting opinions as to whether to allow conscientious objectors to commute or if they should stay at the venues of alternative service.
The duration of mandatory service in the Army, for example, is 18 months. Enlisted men are not allowed to commute.
Conscientious objectors may view the options under review as excessive, but popular internet portals are abuzz with comments that deem them too easy. The ministry will have to find alternative service which will be fair and acceptable to both sides.
Hundreds of conscientious or religious objectors must not go scot-free without performing alternative service. Legislation should be expedited.