AUGUST 24, 2018
SEOUL, South Korea—In January 2017, Lee Gyo-won, who was 21 years old at the time, stood before a South Korean judge with high hopes and well-chosen words. Mr. Lee aimed to convince the judge that his earnest refusal to perform military service was not a criminal act but a conscientious decision based on a deeply held belief in nonviolence.
Mr. Lee, a member of the Christian community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, had little reason for optimism. As he went to trial, 392 Witness conscientious objectors sat in prison with sentences totaling 588 years. Since 1950, over 19,340 of Mr. Lee’s fellow believers have been sentenced to a combined total of some 36,800 years in prison because Korean law did not consider their stand as justifiable grounds to refuse military duty.
However, since 2004, judges who were troubled by the practice of routinely jailing objectors declared 90 of them not guilty. For one, Senior Judge Choi Jong-du of the Busan Appellate Court found that the personal decision to abstain from military service “is based on a strong and genuine ‘conscience’ formed by their religious conviction.”
In June 2018, South Korea’s Constitutional Court finally ruled that the Military Service Act must be rewritten to provide conscientious objectors with alternative service options. * But this landmark decision came too late for Mr. Lee. “After exhausting all legal provisions to appeal my case,” Mr. Lee explains, “I now find myself in prison at the Daegu Detention Center.” He is serving an 18-month sentence.
Mr. Lee joins a legacy of Korean Witness objectors that actually dates back to the days of Japanese rule. When two young Witnesses in Japan went to prison in 1939 for refusing to join the army, colonial authorities rounded up other Witnesses in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea (then known as Chosun). The 38 Witnesses jailed in Korea refused to pay homage to the Japanese emperor and support the war effort. Five of the imprisoned Witnesses died under brutal conditions, most gaining release only with the defeat of Japan in 1945.
The Witnesses’ conscientious objection to military service spans more than a century. Based on Bible passages and the model of early Christianity, the Witnesses believe that Christians should abstain from war because they have no right to take human life. Moreover, the Witnesses remain politically neutral since they see themselves as subjects of God’s Kingdom, or government.
It was during World War I that the Witnesses (then known as International Bible Students) faced the first serious challenge to their nonviolent ethic. In Britain, about 400 Witnesses refused to heed the mandatory call-up. In World War II, Witnesses in the United States made up the largest group of conscientious objectors in prison, about 4,440 in all.
Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the Witnesses’ depth of conviction is their well-documented history of suffering under the totalitarian Nazi regime. The Nazis executed an estimated 400 Witnesses, the majority for conscientious objection to military service. More than 1,000 other Witnesses died of torture and brutal conditions in camps and prisons for adhering to their faith. They were, according to historian Robert Gerwarth, “the only group in the Third Reich to be persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs alone.”
Korean Witnesses, though, have the distinction of enduring the longest-running prohibition of their stand of conscience. Lee Gyo-won, who lost his father in an accident when Mr. Lee was eight years old, was taught by his mother about the Bible and the importance of following his conscience. “When I understood the purpose for which we were created,” says Mr. Lee, “I could not help but love my God, Jehovah. From that moment on, my priority in life had been firmly determined.”
Realizing that he would likely end up in prison, Mr. Lee chose a career in interior construction. He planned to be self-employed after serving his sentence, knowing that the stigma of his criminal record would make it hard to find a job.
On his day in court, Mr. Lee recalls, “I eagerly desired to prove that I was not guilty, since it was a sincere decision due to my faith and conscience.” He reflected on the early Christians disciples Stephen and Paul, who had eloquently defended their faith while on trial. “I think I spoke twice as well as I had when I practiced,” Mr. Lee declared.
On August 30, 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court will hold a public hearing as it considers the Constitutional Court’s direction to make provision for conscientious objectors. The highest court’s ruling will greatly impact 900 cases currently on hold in various courts. Additionally, 117 Witness objectors, including Mr. Lee, remain in prison, awaiting the outcome of the request for a special pardon by the president of South Korea. Though Mr. Lee may still be in the Daegu Detention Center on August 30, he will follow the proceedings with great interest.
Despite his court conviction and the dismissal of his appeal, Mr. Lee remains optimistic about the prospects for his fellow believers: “I hope that I will be among the last ones to experience prison life, a prison life that was given to me due to my love of others and, most importantly, my love of God and his principles.”
International: Paul S. Gillies, Office of Public Information, +1-845-524-3000
South Korea: Hong Dae-il, +82-31-690-0055