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1st conscientious objector recognized on ethical, not religious, grounds

Protesters demand the government stop penalizing conscientious objectors and roll out alternative service at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on International Conscientious Objection Day, May 15, 2017. (Yonhap)
Protesters demand the government stop penalizing conscientious objectors and roll out alternative service at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul on International Conscientious Objection Day, May 15, 2017. (Yonhap)
A conscientious objector received approval on Wednesday to perform alternative service instead of undergoing mandatory conscription. He is the first conscientious objector in South Korea to qualify for the program because of a personal belief in nonviolence, rather than on religious grounds.

South Korea, which conscripts all able-bodied men for about two years to maintain defense readiness against North Korea, introduced the program in October to honor a court ruling that the country stop penalizing draft resisters who invoke religious faith or personal beliefs in nonviolence.

The objector applied for the program a year earlier after refusing active duty in 2018. He said he could not reconcile his beliefs in nonviolence, which he said were inspired by high school debates on resisting conscription, with enlistment, which he said teaches killing.

After reviewing the evidence, a 29-member government committee comprising lawyers and rights experts decided that the man demonstrated “genuine and sincere” beliefs in nonviolence. That evidence ranged from school records and criminal background checks to affidavits from acquaintances.

Meanwhile, in another first for South Korea, a reservist seeking to perform alternative service instead of reserve forces training received the committee’s approval as well. All conscripts undergo the training for eight years upon discharge. The reservist said he could no longer see himself doing drills with a gun.

Participants in the alternative service program work at correctional institutions for three years as full-time employees, living in groups near their assigned facilities and taking on day-to-day responsibilities such as maintenance. Like conscripts, they receive the same wages and take vacations and leave.

Of the 2,052 objectors who have applied for the program so far, 944 have gained approval. Except for the two men whose cases were decided Wednesday, all the successful applicants invoked their religious faith as grounds for refusing military service.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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