Jehovah's Witness Challenge To South Korea's Military Service

Seoul — Kim Ju-hwan is headed toward an uncertain future. The 24-year old university student was sentenced to a year in jail for refusing to serve in South Korea’s military.

As a Jehovah’s Witness, Kim says he’s morally opposed to war. “Based on what I learned in the Bible, I’m a conscientious objector. There’s a verse that says love your enemy. That’s my belief, and it’s how I’m trying to lead my life.”

All able-bodied South Korean are required to serve in the armed forces for about two years. But for conscientious objectors like Kim Ju-hwan, there is no alternative service that allows citizens to avoid military training. He has appealed his sentence to the nation’s Supreme Court and is awaiting its ruling.

“There are jobs in the military that don’t require you to be out in the frontlines, like working in an office,” he says. “But nonetheless, you still have to go through five weeks of basic training, and this is what I and other conscientious objectors refuse to do. I think if this training was replaced with an alternative service, then we wouldn’t have a problem with serving.”

In a 2013 report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about nations that do not recognize conscientious objectors. Data from the Jehovah’s Witnesses show that South Korea has imprisoned more conscientious objectors than any other nation.

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense declines interviews on the subject, but in an email a spokesperson cites tension with North Korea as the reason why military policy won’t be changed, adding that the majority of South Koreans want to maintain the current conscription policy.

Quaint policy?

But Lee Jae-seong, a law professor at Seoul’s Konkuk University, says the South Korean military and government are behind the times. “In the past, people thought that in order to become a man, one had to complete his military service,” he says. “But these days, the public no longer feels that way. One can still be a real man even if they perform an alternative service.”

For proof, he points to a recent survey showing 68% of respondents favoring the adoption of an alternative, civilian service for conscientious objectors. That’s up from a previous poll showing those in favor numbering only 44.3%.

Despite the recent data, some advocates say conscientious objectors still face discrimination once they are released from prison. “There’s a lot of prejudice toward conscientious objectors,” says Lee Bal-rae, who heads the Legislation and Policy Improving division at South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission. “Many people consider them criminals. It’s hard for them find jobs, especially the in public sector.”

Hoping to influence lawmakers and public opinion generally, the National Human Rights Commission recently produced a film depicting the lives of a family of conscientious objectors. The movie is based on the true story of Kim Ji-kwan, his two brothers and father, who were all imprisoned for refusing to serve in the nation’s military.

Kim says he and the other men in his family did the right thing by going to jail for their beliefs. But, he says, if he has a son one day, he would not expect him to carry on the tradition. “I will teach my child values like loving your neighbors or enemies,” he says. “But the final decision will be left up to him.”

He hopes there will soon be a day when Korean men won’t have to make that decision. That could come if the Supreme Court rules in favor of conscientious objector Kim Ju-hwan.

The young man says he feels confident he will avoid jail time. “At first, me and my friends and family were worried, but I think all this waiting just means the judge is really taking my case into consideration,” he says.

But no matter the outcome, Kim says his faith will help him get through it.