Recent events in South Korea suggest that the government may be considering a major shift with regard to respect for fundamental human rights. On December 7, 2017, South Korea’s President Jae-in Moon met with officials from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and asked them to recommend ways for the nation to improve its human rights practices in order to meet the level of international standards. President Moon specifically asked the NHRC to propose solutions that would assist the government to put an end to its policy of imprisoning men who conscientiously object to military service.

After the highly publicized meeting, Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea organized a campaign to collect signatures on petitions addressed to the president. The government’s policy of punishing conscientious objectors with imprisonment has deeply affected generations of Witnesses. Since President Moon has directed his administration to respond to petitions from the country’s citizens, the petitions request the president’s help to find a solution to the problem that conscientious objectors have faced for some 70 years.

The national office of Jehovah’s Witnesses organized the petitions

Within four weeks of the start of the campaign, the petitions were completed. Those signing the petitions included over 14,000 of the men who have been criminally punished as conscientious objectors and more than 26,000 of family members who have suffered because of the men’s criminal convictions and imprisonment.

Petitions submitted to the Office of the President, January 15, 2018

On January 15, 2018, 6 representatives of the 41,275 Witnesses who signed the petitions presented them to the Office of the President. The petitions expressed gratitude for the president’s interest in the issue, highlighted the negative effects of the 70 years of punishing conscientious objectors with imprisonment, and emphasized the benefits to the nation of resolving the issue. On January 16, 2018, the Office of the President forwarded the petitions to the Ministry of National Defense for its consideration.

As the petitions were being prepared, representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses also met with NHRC officials. They explained the Scriptural reasons why Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to serve in the military. If offered alternative civilian service, the young Witness men who enroll in the program would not sit idle in prison but would be a useful resource for the government and would serve for the benefit of the country. The officials told the Witnesses that addressing the issue of conscientious objection to military service is a top human rights priority for the NHRC in 2018.

The number of conscientious objectors imprisoned in South Korea is far more than the number who are imprisoned in all other countries combined. As officials reconsider the government’s long-standing policy on the issue, Jehovah’s Witnesses hope that this new initiative will eventually bring to an end the many years—now more than 36,700—that young Witness men have collectively spent in prison for refusing to perform military service.