JANUARY 25, 2017
The three young men, Hye-min Kim, Lak-hoon Cho, and Hyeong-geun Kim, walked free from the appeal court, grateful that they had not been sentenced to a prison term. It was a surprising result because their cases concerned conscientious objection to military service, a stand that brings imprisonment to hundreds of men in South Korea each year. Since this long-unresolved issue had also put their fathers and over 19,000 others in prison before them, the three men had expected the same punishment. The historic “not guilty” decision of the Gwangju Appellate Court has laid the groundwork for a positive shift in perspective on this issue.
Appellate Court Renders “Best Court Decision of the Year”
At least 200 news outlets reported on the case, emphasizing not only the consequence of this first not-guilty decision by an appellate court but also the growing interest in the issue generally. One newspaper labeled it the “best court decision of the year” and another identified it in the top five court decisions of 2016 in South Korea.
The appellate court’s decision reflects the changing perspective of legal experts and judges on this issue. In a number of recent cases, the judges saw that the men are motivated by genuine and deeply-held moral convictions and that ruling either to compel them to serve in the military or to punish them for not doing so would violate their freedom of conscience. These judges concluded that the men had a “justifiable ground” for their refusing military service. Rather than consider the men as military evaders, judges rendered 16 not-guilty decisions in the last 20 months.
“The trend is significant,” says lawyer Du-jin Oh, who has represented many conscientious objectors. He stated: “I am pleased to see the increasing number of not-guilty decisions at trial and recently from a high court. In each case, the prosecutor is expected to appeal these decisions, but the apparent shift in thinking of South Korea’s judiciary brings increased attention to the Constitutional Court’s pending judgment on the right to express one’s conscience.”
Seeking a Solution
The nation is waiting on South Korea’s Constitutional Court to render its decision. That highest court is weighing the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of conscience against the Military Service Act’s punishment of those who exercise that freedom because their deeply-held religious or other beliefs cause them to refuse military service.
Dae-il Hong, a national spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated: “Thousands of families in South Korea welcome a solution that respects the religious scruples of young men who cannot be coerced to act against their conscience. We look forward to a decision from the Constitutional Court that dignifies these young men.”