SOUTH KOREA: Over 700 conscientious objectors in prison

17 06 2012

Since 1950, 16,655 Jehovah’s Witnesses sentenced to a total of 31,739 years in prison

Human Rights Without Frontiers urges the Republic of Korea to recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service

By Willy Fautré/Human Rights Without Frontiers


Over 700 Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently in prison in South Korea because they refuse to perform military service. Each year, some 500 to 900 young men continue to be added to the list of conscientious objectors criminalized in Korea.

Conscientious objectors to military service in Korea are criminally prosecuted, convicted, and generally sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment for violation of the Military Service Act Article 88 Paragraph 1.

Between 1950 and December 2011, a total 16,655 men have been sentenced to 31,739 years of imprisonment for conscientious objection to military service. As of December 2011, 761 Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service. Since 2008, more than 2,496 conscientious objectors have been tried and convicted by the courts, and sentenced to total 3,726 years of imprisonment.

Conscientious objectors who are called up as reservists face multiple prosecutions and repeated punishments over an eight-year period for violation of Homeland Reserve Forces Act Article 15 Paragraph 9. A reservist is not exempt from being repeatedly called up for the very training that he failed to perform even after paying fines or serving a prison term. Currently, over 80 of Jehovah’s Witnesses are caught in the cycle of being accused and sentenced to repeated fines and possible prison terms because of the religious beliefs they have come to accept after serving their basic terms in the military. A reserve forces training call up is issued over and over again, two or three times a year, even after one is penalized for the conscientious objection to it. For example, Mr. Shin, whose case was rejected by last year’s constitutional court decision, has been prosecuted 37 times as of December 31, 2011, and is expected to face call ups and trials for two more years.

Despite repeated recommendations issued from international and domestic human rights bodies, Korea has not introduced a single provision for conscientious objectors.

A few days after the 8th Session of the UN Universal Periodic Review in 2008 which recommended to the Republic of Korea to “to recognize the right of conscientious objection by law, to decriminalize refusal of active military service and to remove any current prohibition from employment in Government or public organization”, it was reported by a news media that the Ministry of Defense would discontinue its consideration of introducing alternative service for conscientious objectors (Donga Daily, July 5, 2008, “Reconsider alternative service for conscientious objectors”). On December 24, 2008, the Korean government officially announced that it would not introduce alternative service.

The Korea government’s decision not to adopt alternative service is based on a study conducted by a professor named Jin, Seok-yong (Daejeon University, Political Science and Mass Communication) who comprehensively examined the possibility of alternative service. Although the study was positive in suggesting various ways of operating alternative service, the government highlighted the negative result of a public poll included in the study, which indicated the 68.1% of Koreans were against the plan. In interviews with several media sources, the professor who conducted the study explained that the government and the Ministry of Defense distorted his study result (Hankook Daily, January 7, 2009, “Government distorted the study on alternative service”; News & Joy, February 15, 2009, “I feel deceived by the Ministry of Defense.”)

No bill for alternative service or revision of the military service act was ever submitted to the National Assembly by the government.

Human Rights Without Frontiers urges the Republic of Korea to recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service in harmony with its commitment to the norms of international law and to implement alternative service in line with international standards.

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