Thank you for visiting the archive of conscientious objection.

This is an online archive containing information and resources about conscientious objection in South Korea. You can find materials available in English on this page.

For further information, please contact peace@withoutwar.org

<List of materials available in english>

- 2009. Documentation on Conscientious Objection in South Korea | Published by: War Resisters' International and Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection

<A brief introduction to conscientious objection in South Korea> 

Korean objectors to military service are sentenced to prison for the violation of the Military Service Act(Article 88) or for committing mutiny regulated by the Military Criminal Law(Article 44).
Conscientious objectors used to get sentenced to 3 years which is the maximum punishment allowed under law, but the period has been reduced to 1.5 years, the minimum sentence to avoid re-conscription. The absolute majority of them are Jehovah's Witnesses, but the number of other objectors based on various beliefs are constantly increasing since 2001, when Oh Tae-yang declared his conscientious objection as a pacifist and Buddhist.

Despite the decades-long imprisonment, the issue of conscientious objection only entered public consciousness after 2000 in Korea. The cumulative number of conscientious objectors over ten thousand profoundly shocked Korean society at the time. With the very first public declaration of Oh Tae-yang, as a pacifist and Buddhist, not as Jehovah's Witness in December 2001, conscientious objection became a social ‘movement'. The criticism and denunciation against the movement were tremendous in the beginning, due to the deep-rooted militarism in Korean society derived from long-standing militarist dictatorship and the division. Things started to change, however, slowly but steadily, with all that time objectors have endured in the prison, newly made public declarations, and the efforts of the supporters.

The fasted change was witnessed in the judiciary. After the issue was publicized and the trials were moved from courts martial to civilian courts, 3 years of the maximum sentence allowable was reduced to 1.5 years which is the minimum sentence to avoid re-conscription. The first appeal to the Constitutional Court to check the unconstitutionality of Article 88 of the Military Service Act was made successively in 2002, and in 2004, a conscientious objector was given a verdict of not guilty for the first time. These rulings of lower courts were overturned by the Constitutional Court ruled it is constitutional and the Supreme Court found the objector guilty. However, both decisions also contained the recommendation for the legislators with respect to the alternative system to protect the freedom of conscience. 

In late 2004, members of the National Assembly, Mr. Im Joing-In and Roh Hoe-Chan each submitted a Military Service Act amendment bill to the 17th National Assembly. Nevertheless, the bills were repealed even without proper congressional debates. In late 2005, amongst national institutes the National Human Rights Commission of Korea(NHRCK) first announced the recommendation to introduce alternative service. Later in 2007, the NHRCK also voiced opinion on unconstitutionality of Homeland Reserve Forces Act regarding repeated punishment on reserve force objectors.

The international community also recognized the situation of Korean conscientious objectors, and began to put pressure on the Korean government. The UN Human Rights Committee(CCPR) repeatedly urged the Korean government to recognize the right to conscientious objection and consider alternate service ever since 2006. On December 2006, CCPR concluded two individual complaints from South Korea with a clear statement that the government should avoid similar violations and take proper remedial measures.

Through these social changes, it appeared that the imprisonment of conscientious objectors might finally end in the very near future. On September 18, 2007, the Ministry of National Defense(MND) announced its plan to allow conscientious objectors to perform alternative civilian service, starting on January 2009. Despite some controversial conditions need to be improved, it was a definite progress. Regrettably, the MND unexpectedly changed its stance right after the inauguration of the new conservative Lee Myung-Bak government and officially nullified the whole plan on 24 December  2008.

The CCPR reiterated its position on 3 May 2010, in a decision on eleven individual complaints and pressed the South Korean government. They repeated the decision on 24 March 2011, in the case of 100 objectors. On the other hand, on 30 August 2011 the Constitutional Court once again ruled that the Military Service Act and Homeland Reserve Forces Act are constitutional.

During the session of the 18th National Assembly, two different Military Service Act amendment bills were submitted again by congresspersons Mr. Kim Bu-gyum and Ms. Lee Jung-hee, but repealed again without the chance to debate. The government still determines that it has no intention to introduce alternative service on the grounds of the result of the public opinion poll conducted by the Military Manpower Administration on December 2011(against introduction 54.1%, for introduction 43.5%). Regarding the recommendation of the UNUPR to fulfill the obligation and introduce alternative service, it is sticking to its conventional stance, saying ‘yet premature considering the national security.’

*** translated by Garam(garam.maria.pj@gmail.com)

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