The young dentist was uncuffed and led to his seat in the courtroom. A few rows back, his mother watched motionlessly, her hands gently clasped together as if in prayer.
Jeon Seong-jin is being punished for a crime that is not a crime at all in most of the world. A Jehovah’s Witness, he has refused to become a soldier in South Korea, where all able-bodied male citizens are required to serve about 21 months in the army.
More than 660 conscientious objectors have been jailed each year in South Korea, on average, from 2004 to 2012, far more than any other country. Eritrea is second, but imprisoned only about 50 conscientious objectors last year, according to the official Web site of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Members of the religion refuse military service because they believe the Bible forbids warfare.
Even where conscription still exists, governments often allow conscientious objectors to serve their countries without bearing arms, but not in South Korea. Jeon began his 18-month sentence in 2012 and expects to be released in March.
Even behind bars, Jeon continues a legal battle. He appeared in court last month as part of his lawsuit demanding that conscientious objectors be given alternative service instead of prison. The court rejected his case last week.
“Seong-jin can use his medical expertise to serve his country instead of being in jail,” said his mother, Yoon Hyun-jin, wiping away tears at last month’s trial.
Her 26-year-old son was cuffed again, bound in ropes and taken back to prison.
South Koreans who refuse to take up arms often find little support from their compatriots and have trouble finding work after their release from prison.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers face each other along the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, one of the most heavily fortified places in the world. The 1950 to 1953 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically at war.
“It’s reasonable to jail people who don’t go to the army,” said Jeong Won-seok, a 32-year-old computer programmer. “Who wants to go the army, anyway? Most go because they have to and sacrifice a lot of freedom for it. What kind of conscience outweighs the sacrifice made by those who serve in the army?”
South Korea is better known for its catchy K-pop songs, technology and economic growth than it is for the more than 17,500 conscientious objectors who have been imprisoned since 1950. Most are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who number about 100,000 in a country of 50 million and often face stigma in its largely conformist society.
More than 50 men have refused to serve in the past decade because of nonreligious personal beliefs or political reasons, including 25-year-old Kim Dong-hyun.
“Right now, I only have two choices: military or prison. Of the two, I think prison is the more peaceful choice,” Kim said. “At least in prison, I don’t have to train to kill.”
Kim, like Jeon, was sentenced to 18 months, which today is a typical sentence for conscientious objectors in South Korea. Under South Korea’s military-backed dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, imprisonment lasted up to seven years.
The UN Human Rights Committee criticizes South Korea for not recognizing conscientious objectors and failing to give them alternatives to military service — a violation of freedom of thought, conscience and religion recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. South Korea has been party to the covenant since 1990, but the country has made no major changes to stop the jailings.