A brighter future: Why conscientious objectors in South Korea can dream again

By Hiroka Shoji, East Asia Researcher

“I dreamt about this day but never imagined it would come so quickly,” Song In-ho told me last month, following a decision by South Korea’s Constitutional Court that could see an end to the imprisonment of conscientious objectors in the country.

His wish may soon come true. After the ruling, the government must introduce an alternative service of a civilian nature for conscientious objectors, and lawmakers are obligated to change the law by the end of 2019.

I dreamt about this day but never imagined it would come so quickly.
Conscientious objector Song In-ho

However, the decision didn’t come quickly enough for In-ho. Before his release in August 2016, he spent 14 months in prison for refusing compulsory military service on the grounds of conscience, despite his willingness to serve the community.

Life sentence 

In-ho is one of the hundreds of South Korean men, mostly in their early 20s, jailed each year for objecting to military service due to their beliefs. They have faced an impossible choice: either serve in the military against their conscience or go to prison.

Outcast and saddled with criminal records, many face economic and social disadvantages that last far beyond their typical 18-month jail terms. Very often their criminal records can result in a “life sentence” -- life-long social stigma and disadvantages.

I first met In-ho in 2014 while carrying out research on conscientious objectors in South Korea. Over the years, Amnesty’s supporters, along with other civil society organizations, have campaigned to end South Korea’s criminalization of conscientious objectors. We highlighted the situation through individual cases and provided legal opinion to the country’s Constitutional Court.

This work has helped to generate much needed attention to this issue both domestically and internationally. The campaign underscored the global strength of Amnesty, with supporters from more than 100 countries around the globe urging the Minister of National Defence to end the suffering of these young men.

Amnesty activists and conscientious objectors held a rally outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul, South Korea 28 
June Amnesty activists and conscientious objectors held a rally outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul, South Korea 28 
Amnesty activists join conscientious objectors outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul on 28 June. AFP/Getty

Our advocacy efforts and international solidarity were reinforced by calls made by experts at the United Nations. In November 2015, six months after the launch of our campaign, the UN Human Rights Committee once again urged the South Korea government to “immediately release all conscientious objectors condemned to a prison sentence for exercising their right to be exempted from military service”.

I still remember the words of Baek Jong-keon, who sent me a letter while he was detained in 2016. He was stripped of his licence to practice law because of his criminal record for being a conscientious objector. He wrote: “During my struggles, Amnesty’s help is a memorable event for me. Each effort and each attempt seem no point at that time, but they make a little move, and finally the moves have gathered and made the change.”

Time to act

The government must now act. This ruling provides the South Korean authorities with an opportunity to end this grave violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under international law, conscientious objectors should not suffer any legal or other penalty.

Yet, there are many remaining questions for the South Korean authorities. Who will assess whether someone is qualified for alternative service and through what sort of process? Will alternative service be guaranteed to fall under civilian not military control? Can the authorities ensure that no one will be disadvantaged for seeking alternative service? Will previously sentenced conscientious objectors have their criminal records cleared?

While we wait for the government to act, change is already happening elsewhere. Since 2015, lower courts have frequently acquitted conscientious objectors, with more than 80 conscientious objectors receiving non-guilty decisions.

Song In-ho and Amnesty' East Asia Researcher Hiroka Shoji. Song In-ho and Amnesty' East Asia Researcher Hiroka Shoji.
In-ho with Hiroka Shoji, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty, outside South Korea's Constitutional Court last month.

There is much to celebrate in the long-awaited decision from the Constitutional Court. However, the Court also ruled that the Military Service Act, which imprisons those who fail to enlist without justifiable grounds, does not violate the Constitution. The Military Service Act remains unchanged and, for the time being at least, conscientious objectors can still be jailed.

Attention now shifts to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hold a public hearing on 30 August 2018 on the punishment of those refusing military service on grounds of conscience.

Irrespective of the outcome at the Supreme Court, there is only one road ahead for the South Korean government: it must comply with its international obligations without delay, introduce a genuine civilian alternative to compulsory military service and release all conscientious objectors whose lives are being wrecked by imprisonment.

In-ho told me after the recent ruling: “My dreams have been put on hold throughout my life – because I knew they cannot come true due to my criminal record. Maybe now I can get those dreams back.”

It is time for the South Korean authorities to ensure all conscientious objectors can dream again.