JUNE 9, 2017
On May 1, 2017, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled that the action of the Military Manpower Administration Office (MMAO) in publicly shaming conscientious objectors as military evaders may cause them irrevocable damage. The court ruled that the MMAO must suspend the disclosure of personal information identifying the conscientious objectors on its official website, pending the decision in an administrative suit complaining against the MMAO’s action. The MMAO has complied with the suspension order.
Not Military Evaders
In early 2015, commissioners of the MMAO notified conscientious objectors that they would publicize their personal information as military evaders. The MMAO were aware of the men because all of them had written the MMAO before the day of their enlistment to give notice that they had conscientiously made the decision to refuse military service but were willing to perform alternative civilian service. Nevertheless, on December 20, 2016, the MMAO publicized on its website the name, age, address, and other information of the men as military evaders.
Gyeong-chan Park, a conscientious objector who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was shocked to find his name among the 237 on the website list of military service evaders. He stated: “I have taken a stand for my sincere conscientious objection to military service, and I expect that there will be some who criticize my position. Even so, I was dismayed that the government treats me as an ‘evader.’ The MMAO certainly knows the Witnesses and our motivations well enough to recognize that our conscientious objection is not a selfish refusal of civic duty.” He added: “In seeing my name and address on this public list, I have to admit that I feared someone might come to my home and harass me.”
In the application for suspension of disclosure, the 140 Witness men identified on the website argued that the Military Service Act defines a military evader as a person who fails to respond to the draft order “without justifiable grounds.” These men argue that neither are they evaders nor are they “without justifiable grounds” because South Korea’s law and international obligations require it to recognize the right of conscientious objection to military service. A decision regarding the recognition of this right in South Korea is pending with its Constitutional Court.
Abuse of Discretionary Power Adds to Punishment
The Witness men also argued that the compelling force of social criticism, though causing them mental distress and bringing them dishonor, has failed to change the moral conviction of Jehovah’s Witnesses in conscientiously refusing military service. In South Korea, more than 19,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses have withstood this pressure and have endured collectively more than 36,000 years of imprisonment over the past 60 years. The men whose information has been disclosed see this as another means of punishment and view the public disclosure as much of a disadvantage to them as the criminal records that the South Korean government forces them to bear for adhering to their conscience.
Looking Forward to Their Day in Court
Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea are grateful that the court has recognized the issue of the violation of human rights and hope that this decision will have a positive effect on the administrative suit, which will soon be examined in court. They are also preparing to petition South Korea’s National Commission on Human Rights for it to provide an official opinion on this issue to the court. The case is scheduled for hearing on June 28, 2017.