South Korea: Alternative to military service is new punishment for conscientious objectors

Conscientious objectors in South Korea will continue to be punished and stigmatized for refusing military service under a new alternative service law that was adopted today by the country’s parliament, said Amnesty International.

Under the new law, those refusing military service on religious or other grounds will be required to work in a jail or other correctional facility for three years. Previously, they would have been jailed for 18 months.

Landmark rulings by the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court in 2018 in effect recognized the right to conscientious objection in the country.

“South Korean conscientious objectors were promised a genuine alternative service. Instead they are confronted with little more than an alternative punishment,” said Arnold Fang, Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher.

“Confining people to work in a prison – and for almost twice as long as the typical military service – does not respect their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

Applications for an alternative service plan will be assessed by a committee under the Military Manpower Administration, which is part of the Ministry of National Defense.

“South Korea’s recognition of conscientious objection was a positive step, but this law falls way short of expectations. The service should be wholly under the control of a civilian body, separate from the military authorities,” said Arnold Fang.

At 36 months’ duration, the new law makes South Korea’s alternative service the longest in the world.

“This tokenistic move does too little to eliminate the human rights violations conscientious objectors are suffering, and in effect continues to treat them as criminals.

“It will also not reduce the stigmatization they face in South Korea. Conscientious objectors will continue to be seen as having been sent to jail, and their ability to access employment afterwards will most likely still be compromised.

“We urge the South Korean government to treat this adopted plan as no more than an interim measure. Ultimately, conscientious objectors must be provided with alternative service options that are clearly non-punitive, entirely independent from the military and compatible with their reasons for objecting to military service.”

Background

Over the past 60 years, hundreds of young South Korean men have been convicted and imprisoned each year for objecting to military service due to their beliefs, even if they are willing to serve the community. Typically, they received 18-month jail terms but were saddled with criminal records and faced economic and social disadvantages that lasted far longer.

Under international human rights law and standards, states with compulsory military service are obliged to provide genuinely civilian alternatives. These should be of a comparable length to military service, with any additional length based on reasonable and objective criteria. The process for evaluating claims to be recognized as conscientious objectors and any subsequent work service must also be under civilian authority.

Two independent UN experts wrote to the South Korean government last month highlighting similar concerns about the alternative service bill.

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