South Korea’s human rights body has decided to challenge the country’s mandatory military service as unconstitutional, reiterating its position that an alternative is necessary for those who object to it based on their conscience.
The decision, reached by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea’s general assembly on Monday, will be formally delivered to the Constitutional Court, according to officials.
Its statement claimed that the right to reject military service based on one’s beliefs falls under the freedom of conscience stated by the Constitution and international regulations. The NHRC had made similar recommendations in 2005 to the National Assembly speaker and the defense minister.
South Korea currently requires all able-bodied men to serve in the military for at least 21 months. Anyone who refuses to enlist can be sentenced up to three years in prison, as the country does not allow conscientious objection or provide an opportunity for enlistees to serve the country in an alternate way.
From 2010 to this year, an average of 567 people per year refused to do their mandatory military service, according to Rep. Park Beom-kye of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.
There have been calls from local human rights groups for an alternative form of service for those who reject military service. Countries such as Austria, Denmark and Finland have conscription systems but they allow alternative forms of service.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has recommended South Korea to implement an alternative military service program for conscientious objectors, saying that the Seoul government is violating a provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
But allowing conscientious objection is a touchy issue in South Korea, considering that it is still technically at war with the North. For many celebrities and politicians, dodging the draft has a big impact on their careers.
Once-prominent politician Lee Hoi-chang saw his presidential campaign crumble after his son was accused of dodging the draft. Rapper MC Mong’s popularity also took a hit when he faced such suspicions.
The notion of conscientious objection to military service has also sparked an internal feud within the commission, as three members -- each recommended by President Park Geun-hye, the ruling Saenuri Party and Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Seung-tae -- have argued against it.
Yoon Nam-geun, a law professor of Korea University, said the commission must consider the consequences of institutionalizing conscientious objection.
“There will be some who just do not want to go to the military. Do we have to regard that as a freedom of conscience as well?” he said.
A majority of the 10-member commission -- including all three permanent members -- said that the NHRC should retain what has been its consistent position to support conscientious objection to military service.
Chairperson Lee Sung-ho passed the notion on the condition that the three opposing members submit their own opinions as a minority report along with the commission’s report.
The objection by the three members has sparked angry reaction from civic human rights groups.
Lim Tae-hoon, the head of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea, highlighted how international organizations have urged South Korea to recognize conscientious objection and added that the NHRC members who oppose it should quit.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)