Confusion reigns over objectors

Controversy over conscientious objectors to this nation's mandatory military is spreading amid inconsistent court rulings that have left the public increasingly confused.

A Chuncheon District Court Friday sentenced a 21-year-old man identified by his family name Lee to 1-1/2 years in prison in a decision contrary to a ruling May 21 in which a Seoul court acquitted three conscientious objectors for the first time.

All four are Jehovah's Witnesses, a religious sect that rigidly opposes military service because it bars members from picking up weapons.

On Thursday, another Jehovah's Witness, a 20-year-old identified only by his family name Park, was arrested for refusing to join the military.

Then, on Friday, a judge at the Suwon District Court dismissed an arrest warrant on another Jehovah's Witness, identified only as his surname Lim. The judge, Min Byung-hun, cleared Lim of suspicion of leaving his residence to destroy the proof.

The rulings have left the public confused even though everyone agrees each judge can use his or her own discretion on a case by case basis.

Most see the varying rulings further dividing this nation, where a large number of related cases are pending and where two years of military service is mandatory for every healthy male aged 18 to 35.

People want the Constitutional Court to make a clear decision quickly on a petition submitted two years ago seeking a ruling on whether the conscription law contravenes the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of conscience. The military conscription law makes no exception for conscientious objectors.

In Friday's ruling, presiding judge Lee Chul-eui said religious convictions or conscience cannot be a "reasonable ground" to reject military service under military law. He added that some experts say existing laws could restrain freedom of conscience.

Every year, hundreds of conscientious objectors are put in prisons due to a conflict between two aspects of the Constitution - freedom of conscience and the mandatory military service.

According to the Defense Ministry, from 2000 to March 2004, a total of 1,839 objectors were charged with avoiding military duty. Most were Jehovah's Witnesses, except for four Buddhists and 14 who cited their conscience, and not religious conviction, as their reason.

But public sentiment remains mostly against any kind of conscientious objection. A recent opinion survey found more than seven out of 10 respondents disapproved of conscientious objectors.

In South Korea, which faces North Korea's strong 1.1 military and that country's nuclear threat, serving in the military is a highly emotional issue.

Opposition candidate Lee Hoi-chang lost two consecutive bids for the presidency by narrow margins because his two sons failed to serve the military.

"If the court approves the objectors, who would like to volunteer to serve the military?" asked Lee Jung-han, a 29-year-old banker.

"Until amending the current compulsory draft system, the recognition of such objectors would not be right considering South Korea's security concerns."

Lee said the court decisions were significant as they affected the entire nation and could yield false and expedient conversion to a religion solely to dodge military service.

Objectors should, instead, be asked to perform an alternative form of civil service to substitute for mandatory military duties.

But an official with the Military Manpower Administration said such leeway would only fuel controversy between religious sects, as the largest church denominations currently regard the Jehovah's Witnesses as a heretic sect.

Lee Sun-jin, who teaches mathematics in a high school in Yeonchun, some 30 kilometer north of Seoul, said he favors the alternative system of civil service so long as such duty was more laborious and longer than the active two-year military stint.

"A genuine conscientious objector would not be bothered with a longer and harsher alternative service," he said.

Lee said a clear decision from the Constitutional Court was necessary to solve the issue since at present anyone sentenced as an objector gets a criminal record.

The conscription administration does allow exceptions to military service. Experts in engineering sectors serve four years' alternative service at designated industrial sites. Also, anyone unsuitable for active duty is posted to alternative forms of civil service such as fire stations, regional government offices and the subways.