South Korea Faces a Test of Conscience Over the Draft

SEOUL, South Korea — With his cocoa colored smock, wire rimmed glasses and a sheepish grin that he flashes from beneath schoolboyish bangs, there is little about Oh Tae Yang to suggest steely combativeness.

But since Mr. Oh, a 28-year-old Buddhist cleric, refused to be drafted into the South Korean Army last year, he has not only battled hard through the courts for recognition as a conscientious objector, but helped turn the draft into one of South Korea's hottest political issues.

For decades, draft resistance was both futile and virtually unknown in South Korea. Mr. Oh, however, has won the support of human rights lawyers, civic movements and various religious groups, defeated two government requests for arrest warrants and won a hearing before the country's constitutional court later this year.

Since 1939, 10,000 or so Koreans have been imprisoned over conscientious objection, and lawyers say that except for one other case working its way through the courts, no one has succeeded in challenging the system. About 1,600 men are now in prison for resisting the draft.

Since the Korean War, which ended in 1953 without a peace treaty, between North and South, the typical penalty for draft resistance has been three years in jail, with harsh treatment behind bars and stringent conditions for parole. Few companies will hire draft resisters after their release, meaning new hardships and dashed dreams for most.

Asked why he decided to fight the draft, Mr. Oh answered with a simple declaration of faith and a serene smile: "Why am I doing this? Because I am a follower of Buddha, and since I was a university student, the most important thing in the world to me has been peace."

Mr. Oh's Buddhist faith has proven crucial, perhaps, to his success. Of the thousands of people who have challenged South Korea's draft on religious grounds in years past and failed, most have been Jehovah's Witnesses, and their religious beliefs have played subtly into efforts to isolate and stigmatize resisters.

As long as conscientious objectors were from a small church that many Koreans regard as foreign and somewhat unorthodox, refusing the draft could be portrayed as un-Korean. The news media rarely even broached the subject.

Mr. Oh, by contrast, has been all over newspapers and television. He gives frequent lectures about his views on campuses and before civic groups. As a member of one of his religion's main orders in a country with a large percentage of Buddhists, he has become something of a role model for thousands of young men reluctant to face military service along the world's most heavily armed border, facing an unpredictable Communist neighbor.

As debate has grown, the oratory on both sides has turned acrimonious.

"Lots of older people attack me, saying that I am self-indulgent, and that people like me are weakening the country," Mr. Oh said. "I don't think we represent a threat to national defense at all. There are 600,000 people in our army now, and South Korea is much richer and stronger than the North, so we can afford to let people serve in other ways."

South Korea's roughly 88,000 Jehovah's Witnesses have been delighted by Mr. Oh's appeal. "There is more than one way to think about making peace," said Chung Woon Young, a spokesman for the church. "One is through balance of power and arms, and another is through reconciliation, forgiveness and prayer. We support the latter."

Conservative defenders of the draft, though, regard it as an almost sacred rite of sacrifice, and the price of South Korea's freedom. "We feel strongly that conscientious objectors should be punished according to the law," said Kim Jung Kyom, deputy director of the national military service office. "The number of people who don't want to enter the army is increasing all the time. If Oh should win his case, everyone will declare himself a conscientious objector, and there will be chaos on the Korean peninsula."

South Korea holds national elections in December, and the various contenders for the presidency have been busily staking out positions on draft resistance. Some agree with President Kim Dae Jung, who cannot run again, and say that conscientious objectors should be allowed alternative forms of national service, while others warn of national peril.

If the view of peril prevails, and Mr. Oh loses his battle, the story of Chun Chung Kuk, stooped and drawn beyond his 53 years, could prove grimly instructive for him.

Mr. Chun, a former medical student and Jehovah's Witness, served three prison terms totaling nearly eight years starting in 1969, and he said he was frequently beaten by guards intent on changing his beliefs. Since his final release in 1981, Mr. Chun, a father of two, has made a living as a mushroom farmer.