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MARCH 7, 2017

South Korea’s Unjust Treatment of Dong-hyuk Shin

The government of South Korea imprisons hundreds of conscientious objectors to military service. It also subjects to punishing treatment the men who become conscientious objectors while enlisted in the reserve forces.

As a young boy in South Korea, Dong-hyuk Shin knew that one day he would be called up to join the military. He reported for duty when he received his summons, and he completed his military service with an honorable discharge in 2005. He was then automatically enlisted in the reserve forces, subject to regular summonses for military training over the next eight years.

Soon after his discharge, Mr. Shin took up a study of the Bible. Its message of peace touched his conscience and moved him to object to military service. When summoned for reserve forces training in March 2006, he informed military officials that he could not accept the training because it violated his conscience.

No Freedom for the Exercise of Conscience

South Korea does not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. It currently issues summonses for reserve forces training to more than 40 of Jehovah’s Witnesses who have declared themselves to be conscientious objectors.

The military ignored Mr. Shin’s objection to reserve forces military training and issued to him a total of 30 summonses for the 2006 calendar year. Mr. Shin continued to receive summonses for the next seven years. In total, from March 2006 through December 2013, he was summoned 118 times for reservist training. * Because Mr. Shin respectfully declined to report each time, he was prosecuted 49 times, appeared in trial and appeal courts 69 times, and received a total of 35 court verdicts.

“No Other Option”

The courts did not doubt that Mr. Shin’s adherence to his conscience was genuine. In a decision dated October 7, 2014, the Ulsan District Court stated: “It is understandable that [Dong-hyuk Shin], upon becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, had no other option but to commit the offense in the instant case, as he found it impossible to resolve the tension between the military duty and his inner conscience and religious conviction.”

Although the district court showed insight into Mr. Shin’s predicament, South Korea’s courts are constrained by the requirements of the military service law. Mr. Shin has been fined by the courts more than 16 million won ($13,322 U.S.) and six times sentenced to prison terms of at least six months, which were substituted with conditional sentences. In one case, a court ordered him to perform 200 hours of community service.

Mr. Shin said: “I was severely distressed and anxious. It seemed as if this test would never end. My frequent court appearances also caused distress to my family. I think my mother suffered as much as I did during those nine years, and the anxiety had a detrimental effect on her health. Knowing how distressed she was because of my situation, I felt heartbroken. And I also suffered economically. The cycle of call-ups and resulting prosecutions and convictions forced me to change my employment seven times because the obligation to attend court hearings multiplied my absences from work.”

Violation of International Covenant Guarantees

Mr. Shin appealed all of his convictions to the courts in South Korea, but he found no relief—the Supreme Court rejected his appeals four times. Having no legal remedy within South Korea, Mr. Shin filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee (Committee) in June 2016. He claimed that by subjecting him to repeated call-ups, prosecutions, and convictions, South Korea violated its obligation to respect the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The complaint focused on three issues:

  • The situation in which conscientious objectors are repeatedly called up for military service and then punished again and again is explicitly recognized in international law as a violation of the right to fair trial.

  • The many call-ups for military training and the subsequent criminal prosecutions confirm the obvious aim of State authorities to coerce military service. The hounding prosecutions dominated Mr. Shin’s life, and the demeaning and criminalizing of his exercise of religious conscience was a degrading punishment.

  • Because Mr. Shin’s objections to military service are solidly based on his religious convictions, he complained that his right to freedom of conscience and religion was violated.

Hoped-For Relief

Mr. Shin is optimistic that his complaint will be favorably heard because the Committee has repeatedly ruled that South Korea should respect the right of conscientious objection to military service. * He looks forward to a decision that recognizes the special situation of military reservists. Mr. Shin reflected: “I do not regret standing up for religious principles and my conscience, but I do object to the way I have been treated. It is my hope that the government of South Korea will recognize a man’s right to refuse national service that conflicts with his conscience.” Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea and worldwide share the same sentiments.

^ par. 7 Dong-hyuk Shin was summoned 30 times for the 2006 calendar year, 35 times for 2007, 15 times for 2008, 9 times for 2009, 17 times for 2010, and 12 times for 2011. In 2012 and 2013, Mr. Shin did not receive new summons for military training, but he did continue to receive call-ups for supplementary training previously deferred or missed.

^ par. 18 The UN Human Rights Committee has issued five Views finding that South Korea violated Article 18, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”: Yeo-bum Yoon and Myung-jin Choi v. Republic of Korea, Communication No. 1321-1322/2004, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/88/D/1321-1322/2004 (November 3, 2006); Eu-min Jung et al. v. Republic of Korea, Communication No. 1593-1603/2007, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/98/D/1593-1603/2007 (March 23, 2010); Min-kyu Jeong et al. v. Republic of Korea, Communication No. 1642-1741/2007, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/101/D/1642-1741/2007 (March 24, 2011); Jong-nam Kim et al. v. Republic of Korea, Communication No. 1786/2008, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/106/D/1786/2008 (October 25, 2012); and Young-kwan Kim et al. v. Republic of Korea, Communication No.  2179/2012, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/112/D/2179/2012 (October 15, 2014).