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MARCH 1, 2018

South Korea Courts Increasingly Seek Solutions for Conscientious Objectors

Instead of routinely imprisoning Jehovah’s Witnesses who conscientiously object to military service, judges in South Korea are increasingly searching for ways to accommodate their position. Some judges are considering the underlying motive of these men—a conscientious determination, based on Scriptural principles, not to harm others. * Thus, relying on the fundamental right to freedom of conscience, some courts have ruled that these young men are not guilty of evading military service. Since May 2015, trial court judges have rendered 66 “not guilty” decisions in behalf of Witness conscientious objectors—a remarkable increase from the record of only 4 other such decisions in previous decades.

A Persuasive Decision

Most strikingly, on February 1, 2018, a Busan appellate court, while ignoring the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court on this issue, upheld one of these “not guilty” trial decisions. The decision was especially notable for two reasons—the Busan District is conservative, and the presiding judge in this decision, Jong-du Choi, had previously declared a conscientious objector guilty.

The three-judge panel focused on South Korea’s constitutional obligation to honor international laws that the nation has ratified—in this case, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Covenant), which recognizes the right to conscientious objection. The court reasoned that “the practice of punishing conscientious objectors by imprisonment contradicts article 18 of the Covenant, so therefore, . . . it is appropriate to interpret that conscientious objection to military service constitutes a ‘justifiable ground’” for refusing enlistment. The decision was widely reported and many observers believe that it will positively influence the legal community.

Looking for a Way Forward

In the past, judges sent an average of from 500-600 young men to prison each year on this issue, but now many judges are deferring trial. The number of undecided cases, at this time more than 700, continues to increase as judges anticipate the Constitutional Court’s impending decision. As of December 31, 2017, only 267 Witness men were in prison—the lowest number in ten years.

The Constitutional Court will determine whether judges should apply to conscientious objectors the provision in the Military Service Act that punishes evasion of military service or whether the constitutional right to freedom of conscience protects them, in harmony with international standards. Many in South Korea are looking to the Court to find a solution that will dignify young men who can conscientiously accept alternative civilian service in programs that benefit society.

If the Court resolves this issue in favor of conscientious objectors, it would bring South Korea in line with UN Human Rights Committee rulings covering hundreds of individual cases. The Committee has called on South Korea to stop imprisoning conscientious objectors and to respect their fundamental right to freedom of conscience.

^ For example, Isaiah 2:4 states: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore.” Jesus commanded his followers to make themselves known by their love: “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples—if you have love among yourselves.”—John 13:34, 35.