DECEMBER 9, 2013
The government of South Korea provided a measure of relief to hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service. How so? By separating Witness inmates from the general prison population.
This move is the positive outcome of a meeting in December 2012 between Korean representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a high-ranking official in the Korea Correctional Service. The Witness delegation, including a worried father whose son is currently serving a prison term, expressed their concern that the young Witness men are often incarcerated in the same cells with serious offenders. Within five months of that meeting, more than 70 percent of Witness inmates were separated from other inmates and placed in cells with fellow Witnesses.
A long history of imprisoning conscientious objectors. South Korea has a long history of imprisoning Jehovah’s Witnesses for their Scripturally-based refusal to bear arms. At present, approximately 600 Witnesses are being held for conscientious objection. Over the past 60 years more than 17,000 Witnesses have served prison sentences for refusing compulsory military service—a requirement for males between 19 and 35 years of age.
It is not uncommon for several generations of a Witness family to share the same experience of conviction, sentencing, and imprisonment as criminals. “I was sentenced to the same prison that my father was sent to when he was young—and the conditions in that prison had not changed since my father’s time” said Seungkuk Noh, a second-generation Witness who completed his three-year prison sentence in 2000. Today the average prison sentence for a conscientious objector is 18 months, and South Korea has made no provision for non-military alternative service.
Ho Gyu Kang was 21 years old when sentenced to prison for refusing induction. This was the first time he had been separated from his family. “I was so scared and nervous,” recalls Mr. Kang. He and another young Witness were detained with a group of older inmates deemed incorrigible by the prison. Some of these inmates were convicted murderers and gang members.
From the start of detention to their release, Witness inmates—who are usually younger than most inmates—are exposed to physically and emotionally abusive behavior. Inmates often target and mistreat their Witness cell mates, creating an environment that hinders the Witnesses’ free practice of religion, such as prayer and personal Bible study. Year after year, decade after decade, many young Witnesses quietly suffered the indignities of confinement with convicted felons.
Separating prisoners conforms to international norms. By separating most Witness inmates from criminals, South Korea’s efforts harmonize with the universal principles of treatment of prisoners such as those embodied in Article 8 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. South Korea follows the pattern set over 20 years ago by the European Union member nation of Greece when its Ministries of National Defense and Justice approved measures to completely separate Witness conscientious objectors from other prisoners. In 1992, the Ministry of National Defense transformed a military camp in Sindos, Thessalonica, into a prison exclusively for Jehovah’s Witnesses. An official report acknowledged that “the spirit of sensitivity being shown by the Ministry of National Defense, due to the extraordinary nature of the detainees [Jehovah’s Witnesses],” led to the decision to separate Witness prisoners and detain them in a single prison. Greece stopped imprisoning Witness conscientious objectors in 1998.
In separating the majority of Witness inmates from other inmates, South Korea has likewise shown a spirit of sensitivity to young men who are imprisoned for adhering to personal, deep-seated religious convictions. * Several detention centers and prisons with the highest number of Witnesses have successfully implemented the initiative, providing a safer environment for prisoners of conscience. Regarding the benefits the separation affords, a Witness inmate at Gunsan Prison says: “We are free from negative influences such as immorality and abusive speech. We can enjoy wholesome spiritual conversation with our Witness brothers.”
‘We are free from negative influences and can enjoy wholesome conversation’
The unresolved issue of respecting conscientious objection. While South Korea’s recent initiative to separate Witness prisoners is commendable, it has not yet followed the pattern of other nations who have long ago resolved this issue. Greece, for example, has offered alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors since 1997. Germany previously offered alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors but now grants complete exemption since ending conscription in 2011. Taiwan enacted an alternative service law for conscientious objectors in 2000.
Young Witness men and their families in South Korea hope that their country will also implement today’s international standards respecting the fundamental human right of freedom of conscience.
^ International law, which Korea is obligated to observe, recognizes conscientious objection as a human right. See the article titled “Injustice in South Korea Causes International Outcry.”