South Korea: Drop charges against first conscientious objector to refuse alternative service

The first conscientious objector to refuse South Korea’s alternative to military service must not face further punishment for taking a stand against the country’s punitive new system, Amnesty International said ahead of his criminal trial on Tuesday.

Hye-min Kim, whose religious beliefs preclude him from doing military service, is the first person known to have refused “alternative service” since it was introduced in 2020. The new system involves working in a jail or other correctional facilities for three years – twice as long as the typical 18-month military service.

“Instead of being presented with a genuine alternative to fulfil their service requirements, conscientious objectors are effectively given an alternative punishment because of their religious and other personal objections to joining the military,” said Jihyun Yoon, Director of Amnesty International Korea. “Under international law, countries with compulsory military service are obliged to provide a truly civilian alternative of comparable length.”

Kim is charged under Article 88 of the Military Service Act, which imprisons those who fail to enlist without justifiable grounds. He believes his objection is based on “justifiable grounds” under the Act, and that the current alternative service includes excessively punitive aspects that do not measure up to international standards.

Under the new law, those refusing military service on religious or other grounds are required to work in a jail or other correctional facility for 36 months – making it one of the longest alternative services in the world. Previously, they would have been jailed for 18 months.

“Hye-min Kim should not be prosecuted for claiming his human rights and refusing to take part in this unfair system. All charges against him must be dropped immediately.”

“Instead of putting conscientious objectors on trial, the South Korean government should focus its efforts on amending the alternative service so that it does not continue to punish and stigmatize those undertaking it.”


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 and were saddled with criminal records and faced economic and social disadvantages that lasted far longer.

Landmark rulings by the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court in 2018 in effect recognized the right to conscientious objection in the country. The Constitutional Court issued a ruling requiring the government to introduce an alternative service of a civilian nature by the end of 2019.

On 27 December 2019, the legislature enacted amendments to the Military Service Act. However, the legislation still violates the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief because it imposes unreasonable and excessive burdens on conscientious objectors.

It stipulates a disproportionate length of the alternative service and that it is administered by military authorities.

Since 30 June 2020, people objecting to compulsory military service have been able to apply for alternative service. In October 2020, the first batch of alternative service personnel started their 36-month duty, which was limited to working in prisons or other correctional facilities.

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.