Duty to serve in the military or religious conviction?
/Illustrated By Yu Na-kyung
“Obligation to protect the country” is one of the four duties for Korean citizens regulated in the Constitution. To practice the duty, Korean men are obligated to serve in the military. However, there are people who object to carrying out this duty because of their religious convictions. They are called “Conscientious Objectors.” The Dongguk Post has highlighted some controversies around them and legal system to solve the problems.
Conscientious Objectors emerge as an issue in Korea
Conscientious Objectors are people who reject to serve in the military because of their religious convictions. The legal meaning of “Conscientious” is the willingness to act by their own belief. They want to keep a philosophy of nonviolence. Therefore, they avoid to use gun and be trained to fight against enemies in the military. Since Korea enforces compulsory military service, men who are physically qualified have to serve in the military.
Recently, a believer of “Jehovah’s Witnesses” was prosecuted for rejecting the obligation of military service. Jehovah’s Witnesses is a religion which avoids the duty of military service saying they should keep faith in love and peace as Christians. However, regarding this case, The Supreme Court of Korea judged him as not guilty unlike previous cases. Since it was the first time for Conscientious Objectors to be judged as innocent in Korea, Conscientious Objector issue has received a great deal of attention recently.
How has Korea dealt with Conscientious Objectors in the past?
Korea had previously sentenced Conscientious Objectors to prison because their position was not legally accepted. According to the Military Service Law, Article 88, Clause 1, when a person who is a subject to the military service objects to it without proper reason, the person is imprisoned under three years. Up till now, the number of Conscientious Objectors who had been imprisoned is more than 20 thousand.
However, on November 1st this year, The Supreme Court of Korea accepted a Conscientious Objector and judged his religious conviction as a “proper reason” for rejecting the obligation. Regarding the recent judgment of an acquittal, there were dominant opinions against the ruling. They worried that some people might abuse religion to avoid the duty of military service. Also, they claimed accepting Conscientious Objector was not fair saying every male citizen had to practice the duty. In this regard, Kim Sang-kyum, the professor from Department of Law, said, “It is natural that there is a strife on the issue of fairness. The obligation to serve in the military is based on the compulsory military service. As long as Korea does not change the compulsory military service to volunteer military system, similar conflict will be continued. However, in contemporary national situation, it is hard to abolish the compulsory military service.”
Alternative service will be introduced to settle the issue
Alternative service is a system which permits Conscientious Objectors to work in social welfare facilities as a substitute for their duty to serve in the military. As the necessity to introduce the system increased, The National Assembly has discussed legislating alternative service from June this year. Furthermore, as Conscientious Objector issue had much attention regarding the recent judgment, establishing an alternative service became an urgent issue. The Ministry of National Defense will confirm the detail of alternative service this year.
Even though it is not decided yet, some proposals have a high possibility to be introduced as contents of alternative service. One of those is that the period of alternative service is expected as 36 months. This period is twice the length of obligatory military service, 18 months. The reason why the period has to be expanded is that this can prevent people from abusing this system to avoid the obligation of military service. However, there are some negative opinions that expanding the length of alternative service too long can be punitive measure for Conscientious Objectors. Byun Jong-pil, the professor of Department of Law, remarked, “We have to consider that Korean national security situation is not like the other countries and there are public disagreements on which length have to be selected. Considering these two factors, it would be good to introduce 36 months proposal ‘in the beginning,’ and after some problems or complains of the system are found, not only will we reduce the period but also improve operation system.”
In addition, some legal criteria to judge Conscientious Objectors will be newly included in the contents of alternative service. However, there is a controversy regarding how to judge whether the conscience is sincere. Professor Byun Jong-pil said, “Regarding recent judgement, The Supreme Court of Korea announced that the religious conviction had to be ‘firm’ and ‘not to be tactically changed’ depending on the situation. The Supreme Court said when evaluating Conscientious Objectors, these above factors have to be considered including explanatory materials to prove their authentic conviction. Identifying the authentic conscience is not easy.”
In Korean constitution, freedom of conscience and obligation to serve in the military both are indicated. The most important thing is to solve the clash between these two factors. Professor Kim Sang-kyum said, “We cannot give priority on either freedom of conscience or duty as a citizen. As members of a group, called ‘nation,’ people have to practice their own duty. However, it does not mean every duty should be applied to everyone uniformly. If needed, the freedom has to be guaranteed when applying the obligation. Like the case of Conscientious Objectors, the government should induce them to practice the obligation by coming up with proper alternative service to guarantee the freedom.”
Yu Na-kyung firstname.lastname@example.org
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