The torment goes on - story of a South Korean conscientious objector

South Korean lawyer Baek Jong-keon was released from jail in May this year after serving 15 months behind bars. His crime? He refused compulsory military service because of his religious beliefs. South Korea is one of the very few countries around the world that does not offer a genuinely civilian alternative to compulsory military service

South Korea imprisons more people for their conscientious objection to military service than the rest of the world put together, with hundreds of mostly young men imprisoned every year. Most object to military service on religious or pacifist grounds.

Here Baek tells of the devastating and potentially long lasting consequences of his unjust conviction, which led to him being stripped of his license to practice law, and why he continues to campaign for change.

While I recognize my duty as a South Korean citizen, I am also a Jehovah’s Witness and I object to any form of militarism. It’s a value deeply ingrained in our religious teachings. Without a “legitimate” reason to refuse to bear arms conscientious objectors in South Korea are often jailed for exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

The situation is not improving for conscientious objectors. One by one, they have been sent off to prison with murderers, rapists and other criminals.
Baek Jong-keon, lawyer and conscientious objector

Inevitably, my religious devotion has led to a very unjust outcome. I was sentenced to 18-months in prison and the Korean Bar Association suspended my professional license as a lawyer for five years. I currently work in a small law firm as an assistant and offer moral support to other conscientious objectors, as I am unable to defend them in court like before. Many conscientious objectors are punished twice as government-linked organizations and many private companies refuse to hire applicants with criminal records. 

When I was preparing for my bar exam in 2008, people around me were baffled. “Why are you trying in the first place while knowing that your license will be eventually suspended?” they asked. I would tell them that I wanted to become a lawyer not just for myself, but to also defend my fellow conscientious objectors for whom I care dearly.

Torment

While I was imprisoned, it was agonizing to see new conscientious objectors joining me at Seoul Nambu Correctional Centre, but they kept coming. It pains me to know that my cousin and a younger brother will face the same fate if the South Korean government continues to turn a blind eye to our rightful demand for a civilian alternative to military service.

On multiple occasions, the UN Human Rights Committee has called on the South Korean government to recognize our right to be exempted from military service. While President Moon has vowed to provide an alternative military service system, the government, to this date, remains indifferent to our cries. However, lower court judges are siding with us with rulings that are made in favor of conscientious objectors. These rulings are giving prominence to the issue and hopefully they will press the government to react.

My heart wrenches as the military service system continues to torment my family.
Baek Jong-keon

In May, as I was leaving Seoul Nambu Correctional Centre, President Moon Jae-in had taken office and I was more hopeful for change. But to this day, the situation is not improving for conscientious objectors. One by one, they have been sent off to prison with murderers, rapists and other criminals.

My heart wrenches as the military service system continues to torment my family and other conscientious objectors. Conscientious objectors have long been treated as outlaws in South Korea. Hence it is important for me to stand my ground. I have reapplied to the Korean Bar Association for my professional license, in the hope they will reinstate it. It will be a tiny victory, but to do my part in influencing the public opinion and changing minds, I must take these small steps.