'Conscientious Objectors' Call for Alternative Service

Lee Jin-soo, 26, struggled to find a job and was rejected more than six times by companies because, unlike his chums, he has an unusual history, a criminal record.

He graduated from Korea University this year after serving three years in prison for refusing, as a Jehovah’s Witness, to hold a gun while receiving basic training as a conscript.

Lee told The Korea Times that even though he was given the chance to be interviewed by employers, he was turned down as soon as they discovered his record as a conscientious objector.

``It is a waste of human resources, for example, that many smart young men like me are denied so many chances. We don’t want a free pass for military duty. We want to perform an alternative service instead of holding guns,’’ he said.

Lee Se-hyun, 56, suffers heart problems since his compulsory conscription has constantly haunted him throughout his life. He was also imprisoned for three years on charges of mutiny in the 1970s. His days of youth are recalled through painful memories.

Lee, once an aspiring professor, dropped out of Seoul National University in 1970 because of his refusal to take military training as one of the required subjects.

``Stigma as a criminal is a lifetime suffering,’’ he said, adding that his family had economic difficulties because he had to move from one job to another.

With all eyes fixed on the upcoming decision of the Constitutional Court, which are deliberating a 2002 petition to decide whether it is unconstitutional to punish conscientious objectors, an atmosphere is already leaning towards the option of an alternative service.

On July 15, the Supreme Court made a ruling against conscientious objectors, putting national security above conscience or religious faith.

``Freedom of conscience does not take precedence over the obligation of national defense, considering the nation’s security reality,’’ said a panel of Supreme Court justices in the ruling, adding ``One’s basic rights under the Constitution should be exercised within the boundaries of the law.’’

About 280 other conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, have appealed similar convictions. They have been treated as convicted criminals with negative consequences even though they have been released on bail. It remains to be seen whether these cases will be held, pending the decision of the Constitutional Court.

However, the Supreme Court ruling opened the possibility of introducing an alternative to military service.

Six out of 12 judges of the Supreme Court expressed the opinion that an alternative service system would be better than sending conscientious objectors to jail.

The Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (KSCO), consisting of 36 civil organizations, including the Lawyers for a Democratic Society, spearheads the struggle for the introduction of an alternative service.

According to the U.N. report released in 1997, 25 countries under the compulsory conscription system have adopted an alternative service system.

For example, Taiwan introduced an alternative service in July 2000. Substitutive conscription includes serving as police, firefighters and social service workers. The number of beneficiaries stood at 10,055 in 2002 and 8,295 in 2001.

In South Korea, some 600 men, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, choose to go to prison every year. Beside Jehovah’s Witnesses, 14 conscientious objectors were prosecuted on draft dodging charges.

Since 1939, the country has imprisoned 10,000 conscientious objectors, boasting one of the largest number of conscientious objectors with 439 in prison as of June 15, 2004.

The number of conscientious objectors has been on the rise over the past few years from 683 in 2000 to 804 in 2001 and 734 in 2002, despite growing pressure from the international community on Korea to recognize and uphold the right to freedom of thought, religion and conscience.

``It is high time to expedite legalizing an alternative service as a growing number of people are embracing it,’’ Choi Jung-min, the KSCO head, told The Korea Times. ``It is not a free-ride system. Instead, it should be designed to provide an equivalent to military duty for a longer period of service.’’

An official of the National Council of Churches in Korea (KNCC), identified as Kim, said an individual’s faith should not be scathed by anything, even by national security and military duty.

In 2001, Rep. Chun Jung-bae and Rep. Chang Young-dal pushed for alternative service but it was blocked by the strong backlash of the conservative establishment and other religious groups.

This year, Rep. Im Jong-in of the ruling Uri Party started a debate over alternative service. He is planning to submit a bill for an alternative service and hold a public hearing before the National Assembly launches a regular session in September.

The bill is designed to allow conscientious objectors to choose to serve as firefighters and social service workers instead of military conscripts.

Under the bill, the service period is likely to be set at 36 months, one year longer than the 24-month military service.

Unlike the existing ``public service,’’ for those unfit for active military service, conscientious objectors might be allowed to receive training at a quasi-barrack camp.

Rep. Im stressed that when conscience and military duty conflict each other, the government should present another option for conscientious objectors to keep their faith without violating the law.

However, critics pointed out that discerning conscientious objectors from draft dodgers will not be easy.

Cho Nam-hyeon, one of the Free Citizen’s Alliance of Korea worried that the system might be abused by draft dodgers, emphasizing the importance of national security before individual freedom.

An official of the Military Manpower Administration expressed worries that the number of draft dodgers pretending to be conscientious objectors might surge if an alternative service is introduced.

Choi said that if alternative service is put in place, the government should take proper measures to prevent its negative effects.

The government has been refusing to recognize the people's right to object to the military service, arguing they are only trying to dodge their duty and that an alternative service, if introduced, would embolden South Korean males to evade their military obligation.

Korea has maintained a 600,000-strong military since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. The conflict ended with an armistice and not a permanent peace pact, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.