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The South Korea Constitutional Court on the day of its landmark ruling.

JULY 13, 2018

Righting a Wrong for Conscientious Objectors: Long-Awaited Ruling by South Korea Constitutional Court

For some 65 years, young Christian men in South Korea have faced the certain prospect of imprisonment for their conscientious objection to military service. On Thursday, June 28, 2018, a landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court changed that prospect by declaring Article 5, paragraph 1, of the Military Service Act unconstitutional because the government makes no provision for alternative service.

Journalists outside the Constitutional Court. The case was closely followed by the international media.

The nine-judge panel, headed by Chief Justice Lee Jin-sung, announced the 6-3 decision, which moves the country more in line with international norms and recognizes freedoms of conscience, thought, and belief.

Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Korea inside the Constitutional Court moments before the Court’s decision.

South Korea has annually imprisoned more conscientious objectors than all other countries combined. At one point, an average of 500 to 600 of our brothers went to prison every year. Upon their release, all conscientious objectors carried with them a lifelong stigma due to their criminal record, which among other challenges limited their employment opportunities.

Starting in 2011, however, some brothers filed complaints with the Constitutional Court because the law provided no option other than imprisonment for their stand of conscience. Likewise, since 2012, even some judges who were troubled by the practice of punishing sincere objectors decided to refer their cases to the Constitutional Court for review of the Military Service Act.

Hong Dae-il, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Korea, is interviewed outside the courtroom after the decision

The role of the Constitutional Court is to determine if a law harmonizes with Korea’s Constitution or not. After having twice ruled (in 2004 and 2011) to uphold the Military Service Act, the Constitutional Court has finally agreed that change is needed. The Court ordered the government of South Korea to rewrite the law to include an alternative service option by the end of 2019. Alternative types of service that they may implement could include hospital work and other non-military social services that contribute to the betterment of the community.

Putting the decision in perspective, Brother Hong Dae-il, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Korea, states: “The Constitutional Court, which is the ultimate stronghold for protecting human rights, has provided a foundation for resolving this issue. Our brothers look forward to serving their community by means of alternative civilian service that does not conflict with their conscience and is in line with international standards.”

Other important issues await settlement, including the status of the 192 Witness objectors currently imprisoned and some 900 criminal cases pending in various levels of the courts.

The historic decision of the Constitutional Court provides a firmer basis for the Supreme Court to rule favorably in cases of individual objectors. A full bench ruling of the Supreme Court will influence how these individual criminal cases should be handled.

The Supreme Court is expected to hold a public hearing on August 30, 2018, and will issue a ruling some time thereafter. It will be the first time in 14 years that the Supreme Court’s full bench will review the issue of conscientious objection.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly, Korea’s legislature, is already working on revisions to the Military Service Act.

Brother Mark Sanderson of the Governing Body states: “We keenly anticipate the Supreme Court’s upcoming hearing. Our Korean brothers willingly sacrificed their freedom, knowing that ‘it is agreeable when someone endures hardship and suffers unjustly because of conscience toward God.’ (1 Peter 2:19) We rejoice with them that the injustice they endured has finally been recognized, along with their courageous stand of conscience.”