After a struggle spanning nearly seven decades, Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea rejoiced over the happy events of February 28, 2019. On that day the last of their fellow believers imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service was released. Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful that South Korea’s judiciary now recognizes an individual’s right to conscientiously refuse military service and to have the option to accept alternative civilian service (ACS).
Nearly a year later, the Supreme Court began clearing its postponed cases on conscientious objection. On February 13, 2020, the Court acquitted 108 of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and on February 27, it acquitted 210 more Witnesses. It came as a surprise, though, that it found one Witness, Jin-seong Bang, guilty of evasion of military service.
Mr. Bang was not yet one of Jehovah’s Witnesses when he completed basic military training in 2015 and was assigned to the Social Service Personnel (a form of ACS). When he began a study of the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2016, he determined that he could not conscientiously continue to serve in the Social Service Personnel, since this work was supervised by the Military Manpower Administration Office. As a result of his conscientious objection, he was found guilty of evading military service by trial and appellate courts. When the Supreme Court finally decided his case on February 27, it dismissed his appeal and allowed the guilty verdict of the lower courts to stand. This is the same Court that had determined that refusal of military service for reasons of conscience was not a crime, and it now reasoned that Mr. Bang’s refusal of military service was not based on a deep, firm, and sincere religious resolve as required by its jurisprudence. On March 10, 2020, Mr. Bang began serving his 18-month sentence in the Seoul Detention Center.
Implementation of Alternative Civilian Service
As for future conscientious objectors, the legislature passed the new law on ACS in December 2019. It intends to allow young Christian men who are conscientious objectors the opportunity to perform a service that can contribute to Korean society in a meaningful way. On October 26, 2020, 63 Jehovah’s Witnesses accepted this form of service and began a three-year work assignment at one of two correctional facilities. At this time, the conditions under which the ACS is implemented are uncertain. The authorities are still determining to what extent the men will be permitted to leave the prison after hours to exercise their freedom of religion and participate in other activities.
According to international standards on ACS, it must be “civilian in nature” and not under military control or supervision. The appropriate implementation of the law is crucial to ensure that conscientious objectors have the opportunity to perform a genuine ACS. Furthermore, ACS should not be punitive. This was highlighted in the decision by the Constitutional Court in June 2018 when it stated: “If the duration or severity of alternative service is excessive to the extent that even conscientious objectors find it difficult to perform such service, this would defeat the purpose of alternative service or degrade it to a mere form of punishment.”
If the law allows for control or supervision by the military, conscientious objectors who are Jehovah’s Witnesses would likely feel compelled to refuse this kind of ACS. On the other hand, if the ACS is not under the control and supervision of the military, every individual conscientious objector who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses will decide for himself whether to accept that service.
March 10, 2020
Jin-seong Bang begins his 18-month prison term.
February 13 and 27, 2020
Supreme Court acquits over 300 Witnesses; one Witness is found guilty.
South Korea’s legislature passes a law to provide for ACS.
February 28, 2019
The last Jehovah’s Witness serving a prison term is released.
November 1, 2018
Supreme Court decides conscientious objection is not a crime.
June 28, 2018
South Korea’s Constitutional Court declares absence of ACS unconstitutional.