OCTOBER 1, 2013
South Korea imprisons hundreds of young men who are not criminals. Why? They are Jehovah’s Witnesses and have chosen to follow the dictates of their conscience by refusing to perform military service. Because Korea does not protect the rights of conscientious objectors, conscripted Witnesses are sentenced to prison. In fact, for the past 60 years more than 17,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for their conscientious objection to military service.
To draw attention to this issue, the national office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea prepared a brochure entitled Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Korea. The brochure highlights Korea’s failure to apply international standards and protect conscientious objectors. It also provides a brief history of young Witness men who have endured imprisonment because they would not violate their conscience. Mr. Dae-il Hong, representative of the Korea office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Philip Brumley, General Counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York, give further insight into this long-running injustice.
How has the international community responded to the injustice evident in South Korea?
Philip Brumley: A number of countries have spoken out against Korea’s failure to recognize the fundamental right of conscientious objection. During a recent UN Universal Periodic Review session, eight countries—Hungary, France, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, the United States, and Australia—urged Korea to end the prosecution of conscientious objectors and to establish non-military civilian service for them. *
Dae-il Hong: In 4 cases involving a total of 501 conscientious objectors, the UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR) ruled that the Republic of Korea violated their rights when it convicted and imprisoned them. The Committee stated that “the right to conscientious objection to military service is inherent to the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It entitles any individual to an exemption from compulsory military service if the latter cannot be reconciled with the individual’s religion or beliefs. That right must not be impaired by coercion.” *
The Human Rights Council, another UN body, likewise drew attention to this issue in its recently released report entitled “Analytical report on conscientious objection to military service.” This document sets out the international legal framework that both recognizes the right of conscientious objection and prohibits coercion through repeated trial or punishment of conscientious objectors. *
What has been the response of the Korean government to this international outcry?
Philip Brumley: The Korean government has not implemented the CCPR rulings. Therefore, it has failed to abide by its international treaty commitments and has refused to recognize the fundamental rights of conscientious objectors. Further, South Korea’s Supreme Court and Constitutional Court ignored the CCPR rulings when they rejected the appeals of conscientious objectors. The Korean National Assembly has not implemented any alternative form of civilian service for conscientious objectors and has not adopted any provisions to protect them.
In general, how has imprisonment affected these young Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Dae-il Hong: These are brave young men. They respond to the government’s call-up, knowing they will be convicted and sent to prison under the current system. They do not hide. They are model citizens before imprisonment, and they are model prisoners. Sadly, when they are released they have a criminal record that makes it nearly impossible for them to find employment in the public sector or with larger corporations. They have been robbed of a year and a half of their life in prison. Their families have had to continue without them while they served their prison sentence. These hardships are unnecessary.
Do Jehovah’s Witnesses in Korea deserve to be convicted and imprisoned as criminals for refusing compulsory military service?
Dae-il Hong: Absolutely not! These young men are not criminals. Jehovah’s Witnesses are known in Korea and worldwide as peaceful law-abiding citizens willing to serve their community. They respect government authorities, obey the law, pay taxes, and cooperate with government initiatives for the public benefit. Recently, a Korean district court judge sentenced a young Witness to prison for conscientiously objecting to military service. After saying there was no other way to rule but render a guilty verdict, the judge read the decision. Suddenly, the judge covered her face with the papers and sobbed. It seems that the injustice of criminalizing the young man so distressed the judge that she momentarily lost her composure. Others in attendance also recognized the injustice and shed tears.
Philip Brumley: Truly, now is the time for the Korean authorities to resolve this long-standing issue and implement a system that respects the fundamental human rights of conscientious objectors.
^ par. 5 Human Rights Council “Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review,” 12 December 2012, A/HRC/22/10, pages 7 and 22, paragraphs 44 and 124.53.
^ par. 6 Jong-nam Kim et al. v. The Republic of Korea, communication no. 1786/2008, Views adopted by the Committee on 25 October 2012, page 8, paragraph 7.4
^ par. 7 Human Rights Council “Analytical report on conscientious objection to military service,” 3 June 2013, A/HRC/23/22, pages 3-8, paragraphs 6-24; pages 9, 10, paragraphs 32, 33.