Jehovah’s Witnesses have been present in South Korea for more than 100 years and enjoy freedom of worship—except for those who are conscientious objectors to military service. From the Korean War period to the present, South Korea has relentlessly prosecuted young Witness men who refuse military service, and the government has not provided any alternative to resolve the issue. The result? South Korea has sentenced over 19,200 Witnesses to a combined total of more than 36,700 years in prison for refusing to perform military service.
The International View of the Right to Conscientious Objection
The UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR), which reviews the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has consistently ruled that South Korea * is violating the rights of conscientious objectors by convicting and imprisoning them. Most recently, on January 14, 2015, the CCPR released its fifth decision against South Korea on this issue. The decision, involving 50 Witnesses who had been imprisoned, repeated its earlier rulings that South Korea violated their right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” It also concluded that the government was guilty of “arbitrary detention” by punishing the men with imprisonment for exercising a right guaranteed by the ICCPR.
After reviewing South Korea’s entire human rights record, the CCPR adopted concluding observations on November 3, 2015. The CCPR urged the government to release all conscientious objectors, expunge their criminal record and provide adequate compensation, and adopt legislation providing for alternative civilian service. It stated that the government “should also fully implement the Views the [CCPR] has issued so far.”
The Viewpoint Within South Korea
There is increasing domestic pressure on the government to adopt legislation providing an acceptable alternative service program for conscientious objectors. Since 2015, district court judges have declared 56 Witness conscientious objectors “not guilty” of evasion of military service. Some district courts have referred cases to the Constitutional Court, and on July 9, 2015, that Court held a hearing to examine whether the government’s refusal to recognize the right of conscientious objection is constitutional. The Court has twice ruled, in 2004 and 2011, that the Military Service Act’s lack of recognition of the right to conscientious objection does not violate the constitution.
More and more courts are holding their cases in abeyance until after the Constitutional Court decision, and as the chart shows, the number of pending cases now exceeds the number of Witnesses imprisoned for conscientious objection. At last report, 11 of 45 correction facilities in South Korea do not have any imprisoned Witnesses, and without these prisoners, whose trustworthiness lightens their workload, some prison officials have expressed concern that they do not have sufficient staff. Some prison officials have remarked that they would welcome the Witnesses as workers in a program of alternative civilian service.
October 31, 2017
Total of 309 of Jehovah’s Witnesses serving prison terms for conscientious objection to military service.
November 3, 2015
CCPR adopts concluding observations, urging South Korea to provide an alternative civilian service program.
July 9, 2015
Constitutional Court considers whether certain provisions of the Military Service Act are constitutional.
January 14, 2015
CCPR adopts Views finding that South Korea violated Article 18 (right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and Article 9 (prohibiting arbitrary detention) of the ICCPR by denying 50 Witnesses the right to conscientious objection to military service and imprisoning them.
June 30, 2014
Twenty-eight cases pending with Constitutional Court on issue of conscientious objection to military service; 618 men imprisoned.
January 28, 2014
President grants a special amnesty and release on parole that shortens by a month or two the prison terms of about 100 Witness men incarcerated for conscientious objection to military service; 513 are imprisoned as of January 31.
Total of 599 Witnesses detained for conscientious objection to military service.
Seventy percent of Witness inmates are separated from the general prison population and placed in cells with fellow Witnesses.
October 25, 2012
CCPR adopts Views finding that South Korea violated Article 18 (right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) of the ICCPR by denying 388 Witnesses the right to conscientious objection to military service.
August 30, 2011
Constitutional Court decision finds that the laws that penalize conscientious objectors who refuse military service do not violate Korea’s Constitution.
March 24, 2011
CCPR adopts Views finding that South Korea violated Article 18 of the ICCPR by denying 100 Witnesses the right to conscientious objection to military service.
January 15, 2009
Presidential Commission on Suspicious Deaths in the Military releases a report confirming the South Korean government was responsible for the death of five young Witnesses from 1975 to 1985 who were imprisoned for conscientious objection.
South Korea overturns plan to introduce alternative service for conscientious objectors.
September 18, 2007
South Korea’s Ministry of Defense announces plan to allow conscientious objectors who refuse military service on religious grounds to perform alternative service, promising to revise the military service law and army reserve law.
November 3, 2006
CCPR adopts Views finding that South Korea violated Article 18 of the ICCPR by denying two Witnesses the right to conscientious objection to military service.
August 26, 2004
Constitutional Court upholds the constitutionality of the law that punishes conscientious objectors.
Office of Military Manpower Administration discontinues forced enrollment, and prison sentences are reduced from a mandatory three-year sentence to a year and a half.
December 1, 1985
Kim, Young-geun dies as a result of the inhuman acts of violence by the military during his imprisonment for conscientious objection.
August 17, 1981
Kim, Sun-tae dies as a result of the inhuman acts of violence by the military during his imprisonment for conscientious objection to military service.
March 28, 1976
Jeong, Sang-bok dies after severe beatings and harsh treatment by the military in response to his conscientious objection to military service.
March 19, 1976
Lee, Choon-gil dies after severe beatings by military policemen resulted in a ruptured spleen during his imprisonment for conscientious objection.
November 14, 1975
Kim, Jong-sik dies after severe blows and torture by military officers in response to his conscientious objection to military service.
President Park Jeong-hee institutes coercive military conscription, demanding 100 percent participation. Witness men are forcibly taken to military recruitment centers.
January 30, 1973
Enforcement of Special Act on Criminal Punishment for Violation of Military Service Act, increasing maximum length of imprisonment for conscientious objectors from three years to ten years. Subjects some to repeated conscription.
Imprisonment of conscientious objectors to military service by South Korea begins.
^ par. 4 South Korea is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and a party to the first optional protocol to the ICCPR, allowing individuals within South Korea to submit written communications to the CCPR for violations of the ICCPR.