The Korea Herald


[Newsmaker] Objectors challenge conscription law

By 윤민식

Published : July 9, 2015 - 16:27

    • Link copied

The Constitutional Court held a public court hearing Thursday on the conscription law, after three conscientious objectors challenged the much-disputed law that does not recognize people’s right to refuse mandatory military service based on their religious or personal beliefs.

It marked the third challenge on the law’s legitimacy, with the previous cases also being tied to conscientious objection. In both 2004 and 2011, the court ruled the law constitutional. 

A member of a civic group supporting conscientious objectors holds a protest outside the Constitutional Court in Jongno-gu, Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap) A member of a civic group supporting conscientious objectors holds a protest outside the Constitutional Court in Jongno-gu, Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap)

Korean law stipulates that anyone who refuses military duty without justifiable cause is subjectable to imprisonment of up to three years.

“As of now, 43 prisons across the country are holding 706 young men who rejected military service based on their beliefs,” said Oh Du-jin, a legal representative of the conscientious objectors who filed a petition against the law. “The freedom of conscientious objection is a basic right that should be respected in all situations, and we believe it is the court’s duty to protect their rights.”

Lawyers for the objectors stressed that their clients did not seek to dodge military duties, but simply wanted to substitute them with nonviolent duties. Mandating a more demanding task than military duty for the objectors could be an option, they said.

They also emphasized that Article 18 of the International Covenants on Human Rights recognizes the conscientious objection of military duties, while claiming that recognizing that conscientious objection is a global trend.

Countries such as Austria, Greece and Switzerland provide options of performing civilian services instead of joining the military. In some countries like Greece, the civilian service period is longer than the corresponding military service.

Legal representatives of the Defense Ministry, however, refuted by saying that the unique situation on the Korean Peninsula makes it hard to compare to any other country.

“As the world’s only divided country, it is crucial for (Korea) to carry out conscription as fairly as possible to procure sufficient manpower for the military. To do so, we must ensure that military duty is imposed on everyone equally,” said Seo Gyu-yeong, a lawyer for the Defense Ministry.

He added that while individuals’ freedom is important, the national security is the indispensable precursor to protect the freedom and rights of all people.

As 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, South and North Koreas are still technically at war with each other. South Korean law stipulates that all able-bodied men must serve in the military for at least 21 months between ages 18 and 35. The service period varies according to branches: 21 months for the Army and the Marine Corp., 23 for the Navy and 24 for the Air Force.

According to the Military Manpower Administration, 6,090 people from 2004 to 2013 have rejected the mandatary military service due to their religion and various other reasons. Most notable among conscientious objectors in South Korea are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refuse to use weapons or partake in combat training.

By Yoon Min-sik (