South Korea: Authorities wrecking lives by jailing conscientious objectors

South Korean authorities must end the needless imprisonment of hundreds of young men who object to military service on the grounds of conscience, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

Sentenced to Life, details the harsh consequences for South Korean men jailed for rejecting military service because they refuse to bear arms.

Criminalized and outcast, many face economic and social disadvantages which last far beyond their typical 18 month jail term.

The jailing of conscientious objectors only serves to stigmatize and crush the aspirations of young men who had bright futures.
Hiroka Shoji, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty

“For the South Korean government to condemn innocent young men as criminals is a scandal and a violation of their rights,” said Hiroka Shoji, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.

“The jailing of conscientious objectors does not make South Korea any safer, it only serves to stigmatize and crush the aspirations of young men who had bright futures.”

South Korea 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. Most object to military service on religious or pacifist grounds.

“The government is failing these young men, their families and society. There are genuine alternatives to military service that the authorities can and must provide,” said Hiroka Shoji.

“These men are prisoners of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released.”

Imprisoned and fined

In an environment of heightened tension between South and North Korea, military service remains compulsory for South Korean men and most are conscripted in their early 20s. Terms of active service range from 21 to 24 months, and once completed the men are required to serve in the reserve forces for eight years, with a maximum of 160 hours of duty per year.

The government maintains that introducing an alternative service for conscientious objectors would jeopardize national security and undermine social cohesion – grounds that have been repeatedly rejected by UN bodies.

Those who refuse initial military service can face up to three years imprisonment. Those who decline to serve in the reserve forces can also face heavy fines. Kim Jung-sik, 38, faced a total fine of approximately 40,000 USD after refusing reserve forces duty for five years. This was eventually changed to 12,000USD with 240 hours of social work and a four month prison term, suspended for one year.

Born a criminal

Most of the young men are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian group, and know long before their military service that they are likely to end up in jail as a result of their religious beliefs.

One Jehovah’s Witness told Amnesty International: “It’s as if I was born a criminal. All my life, I felt like I was imprisoned because I knew I would go to jail.”

Hostility and hardship

For many, the prison terms and punitive fines are only the beginning of their ordeal. Military service is seen as a “patriotic duty” by mainstream society due to the security situation in the Korean peninsula. Men who do not fulfill this duty are often considered to be traitors.

In an increasingly difficult economic climate for young job-seekers, conscientious objectors are punished twice as they are often denied employment due to their criminal record.

Many government-linked organizations will not employ conscientious objectors because of they have a criminal record, and major private companies generally require applicants to provide details of their military service during the recruitment process.

Song In-ho, a 25 year-old university graduate, is awaiting trial for objecting to military service. He told Amnesty International of his struggle: “I could not find employment, the discrimination and prejudice is so strong.” He currently has a cleaning job to make ends meet.

Choi Jung-won was left without a stable job and income due to his repeated court appearances for refusing reserve force duty. Another conscientious objector and college graduate, Son Incheol, 29, could not pursue his dream of becoming a pilot due to his criminal record.

Families are often torn apart by the criminalization of their sons and brothers. The French government granted refugee status to a South Korean applicant, Lee Yeda, 24, who fled to France in July 2012 to escape the consequences of a criminal conviction for conscientious objection, and is now separated from his family and friends.

A chance to serve

The absence of a genuine alternative to military service denies young South Korean men the chance to serve their country. “I am willing to provide my service to the country,” Lee Cherin, 24, told Amnesty International. “I would like others to understand that the reason I refuse to take up arms is genuine and not out of negligence.” 

In 2007, the Ministry of Defence in South Korea announced plans to introduce alternative service for conscientious objectors by 2009. However, following the February 2008 Presidential election, the government announced the plans had been put on hold indefinitely, citing lack of public support.

Under international law, every person has the right to refuse military service for reasons of conscience or profound personal conviction, without suffering any legal or other penalty.

  • Amnesty International is calling on the South Korean government to:
  • Make provision for conscientious objectors to carry out an appropriate alternative non-punitive service of a genuinely civilian character.
  • Immediately and unconditionally release all individuals imprisoned solely for refusing military service on grounds of conscience.
    Clear the criminal records and provide adequate compensation to all conscientious objectors.

Take action: Sign the petition Conscientious objection is not a crime

Read more

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

Read the full report: Sentence to Life: Conscientious Objectors in South Korea