A life sentence from birth – story of a South Korean conscientious objector

Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, my conscience was shaped by the Bible. We are taught to love even our enemies, and that we should not repay violence with violence. This is why I made a conscientious objection to military service. I was found guilty at my initial trial and, if my appeal is rejected, I will be put behind bars for 18 months. But that is not where my story ends or even begins.

It is like people know that a child is predestined to be in jail, so they decide to treat them like criminals-to-be.
Song In-ho

Branded a criminal at birth

In South Korea, those who conscientiously object to military service are stigmatized, almost as if we are branded at birth. It is like people know that a child is predestined to be in jail, so they decide to treat them like criminals-to-be.

My mother is a Jehovah’s Witness, but my father was initially very opposed to my religion. He knew his beloved son would eventually go to jail for refusing military service, and no father wants that.Because of this, I have always tried my hardest to be a good, diligent son. As a result, my father gradually changed his mind. He was the first to support my appeal. 

Since I was destined to go to jail anyway, what use is a dream?
Song In-ho

When I was a primary school student, I was asked during class to write about my future aspirations, but I left it blank as I knew it was not achievable. Since I was destined to go to jail anyway, what use is a dream? Yet I could not tell that to my mother because she would be heartbroken.

I remember a traumatic experience when some classmates approached me and asked: “Are you a Jehovah’s Witness? My mother said that you would be sent to jail.” It was many years later that I realized this experience was merely the prologue to what was to unfold in my life.

Marked out at school

At the start of each school term, teachers and friends would ask me the same question:“Are you really going to jail? Are you sure you want to be a Jehovah's Witness?” My answer was always the same. It isn't a matter of compromise, because it is about creed, something I would trade my life for. It is a burden I need to carry to the end.

Friends would ask, "Do you even know how much negative gossip there is about you?" Such moments are very bitter to stomach, and those painful memories are far too many.

I’m on a runaway train rushing toward an inevitable station called jail and feeling utterly helpless, unable to escape.
Song In-ho

The discrimination at college was particularly harsh. My friends once mocked me: “Song In-ho, you can't use profanity, you can't fight, you don't pass as a man, and you’re not living up to anything.” There was a lot of ridicule, and it was quite frankly unpleasant. I felt angry. I spent a lot of time thinking: “Is this the right thing to do? Is it unmanly?”

Ever since I was born, I have felt like I’m on a runaway train rushing toward an inevitable station called jail and feeling utterly helpless, unable to escape. 

After graduation, I wanted to find a good job but couldn’t. As a conscientious objector, getting a job in a reputable company is nearly impossible because of the discrimination and prejudice. I’m currently helping my parents in their cleaning business.

“As a conscientious objector, getting a job in a reputable company is nearly impossible because of the discrimination and prejudice.”

Only asking for alternatives

To prepare for my trial, I went to court on the same day each week and I saw petty thieves, burglars, crooks, and rapists – criminals of all variety, all appealing that their sentences were unreasonable. I felt that if anyone should make an appeal, it ought to be me.

I made up my mind then. If given a chance, no matter what it took, I would do all I can to plead my innocence, even if it meant certain incarceration.

I am a grateful citizen, and it is my wish that I would be allowed to contribute to the nation in some way other than military service.
Song In-ho

I am willing and ready to dedicate myself to any form of alternative service for my country, no matter how difficult. My conscientious objection to military service is nothing to do with avoiding service.

I am a grateful citizen, and it is my wish that I would be allowed to contribute to the nation in some way other than military service. Whatever that alternative may be, I am willing to take it on, as long as it does not go against my conscience.

That's all we are really asking for.

In South Korea, a majority of conscientious objectors are Jehovah’s Witnesses. The country imprisons more people for their conscientious objection to military service than the rest of the world put together – with at least 600 men mostly aged between 20 and 24 currently in jail. Read our news story and report Sentenced to Life.

Stand up for people like Song-In-ho: call on the Minister of National Defence to recognize the right to conscientiously object to military service. Take Action Now.