Top Court Rules Against `Conscientious Objectors'

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that ``conscientious objection'' to mandatory military service because of religious faith is illegal, upholding a lower court ruling against a Jehovah's Witness and ending months-long debates over the issue.

Putting national security over religious belief or conscience, the court convicted a 25-year-old, identified by the surname Choi, of draft dodging.

The ruling is expected to serve as the guideline for lower courts in dealing with around 300 other similar cases of ``conscientious objectors.''

A controversy has recently erupted as some judges at district courts made conflicting rulings on the conscientious objection over the past months.

``Individual freedom of conscience cannot be more important than accepting calls of duty for the defense of their own country,'' the 13-member Supreme Court panel said in its ruling. ``Choi violated the military draft law by refusing to receive military training.''

The court said seeking freedom of conscience as a member of society can only be admitted when the person follows the rules that others follow. All Korean men have their duty to defend this nation, but he refused to fulfill the obligation, it added.

Choi appealed to the Supreme Court in April after being sentenced to 18 months in prison by a district court and an appellate court on charges of refusing to comply with a summons for conscription in November 2001.

Following the ruling, controversy surrounding the draft dodgers is likely to subside, but critics argue the court's decision will be challenged in the near future as more and more people are set to choose jail over the military to uphold their religious beliefs. Six of the 13 Supreme Court judges recognized the need for the government to adopt an alternative service for conscientious objectors to complete their duties without holding guns.

Choi said he respects the ruling by the Supreme Court, but will await the final decision by the Constitutional Court, which is reviewing the matter to decide whether the refusal to serve in the military is in violation of the Constitution.

The issue made headlines when judge Lee Chong-yul of the Seoul Southern District Court cleared three Jehovah's Witnesses of criminal charges on May 21, recognizing conscientious objection for the first time. Lee said their refusal to serve in the military was based on the freedom of conscience ensured in the Constitution.

South Korea maintains a strict conscription system due to its military rivalry with North Korea. Critics argue if the government admits conscientious objection, it will be misused by many young people to dodge their military duties and will wreak havoc on the conscription system. Human rights groups and religious leaders have called for a more generous approach toward conscientious objectors.

Lee Yong-seok, a representative of World Without War, a group composed of people refusing to serve military duties on religious grounds, said the Supreme Court's ruling against them was widely expected, but felt there had been a positive change in the past few months.

``In the past, courts didn't take this issue seriously, thinking of us as just law-violators,'' said Lee, 25, who plans to go to jail voluntarily to maintain his religious beliefs. ``Now, there is a wide consensus among people and legal experts that the government should change its attitude and establish alternative systems to help people serve their military duty without learning how to kill people.''

Lee said the group will hold a press conference in Seoul on Fri to announce its official stance on the court's ruling.

The Korea Veterans Association welcomed the ruling against the Jehovah's Witnesses. The association said in a statement that they hope the case will be an opportunity for South Korean people to be more aware of the importance of national defense.

However, Lawyers for a Democratic Society and other groups advocating human rights criticized that the nation's highest court made an anachronistic decision, ignoring the Constitution guaranteeing the freedom of religion and conscience.

Records show more than 10,000 South Korean males have been jailed for refusing to serve their military duties. The number has steadily risen over the past few years from 683 in 2000 to 804 in 2001 and 734 in 2002.

According to an Amnesty International report published last year, about 800 Jehovah's Witnesses are serving jail terms here for dodging drafts.