Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Courts could alter S. Korean conscription

CONSCIENTOUS OBJECTORS Refusing to serve has long meant a stint in prison and a lifetime of second-class citizenship, but big changes might be on the way


For decades, the rule has been simple and unforgiving: If you are an able-bodied South Korean man, you must serve in the military or go to prison for up to three years. Each year, hundreds choose prison, most for religious reasons, giving South Korea one of the world's largest populations of imprisoned conscientious objectors.

Yoon Yeo-beom, a 24-year-old Jehovah's Witness whose faith forbids him from taking up arms, thought he would be among them when he ignored his draft orders this spring.

But Yoon and about 300 other objectors are now at the center of a legal battle that threatens to undermine universal conscription, a decades-old cornerstone of national defense against communist North Korea and an unwritten rite of passage for young men in the South.

The rulings, beginning with one expected today at the Supreme Court, could force the National Assembly to revise or abolish the country's strict prohibition against conscientious objection. Human rights groups say they could mark an advancement for religious freedom; critics say they could open the floodgates to draft dodging.

The Supreme Court has ruled against conscientious objectors in the past, as recently as 1992, but a separate case before the Constitutional Court will be a first there.

landmark ruling

A landmark ruling by a Seoul district court in May freed three Jehovah's Witnesses, saying faith was grounds for refusal. The ruling is being challenged by the government, but it has bolstered other appeals.

"I hope society will become less regimented and more willing to accept people like me," says Yoon, who was sentenced to one and one-half years but is now free while a court hears his appeal.

A positive ruling today would strengthen Yoon's case.

The crux of the question is an apparent legal inconsistency within the South Korean Constitution, which mandates military service but also guarantees the freedom to act according to one's conscience.

Before reaching 30, all physically fit men must serve 24 months in the South's 650,000-member military, which faces off against the North's 1.1-million-member armed forces across the world's most heavily armed border.

Since the 1940s, an estimated 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, including Yoon's elder brother, have been sent to military prisons for rejecting the conscription law.

But the quandary of conscientious objectors has only recently become a focus of concern.

The number of newly declared conscientious objectors has climbed from 233 in 1994 to 705 last year, according to figures compiled by Lawyers for a Democratic Society, a leading human rights group in South Korea.

Today, South Korean prisons hold 440 objectors, most of them Jehovah's Witnesses.

brutal treatment

Jailed objectors have testified in the past to beatings, sleep deprivation and other forms of brutal treatment.

Their criminal records later prevented them from working in big businesses and the government. They also face prejudice in a society versed in the maxim: "You can't be treated as a man unless you have served in the military."

"We couldn't talk about it. No one cared,'' said Hong Young-il, a Jehovah's Witness jailed from 1990-1992.

Hong, once a promising electronic engineering major at the elite Seoul National University, declared himself a conscientious objector in boot camp.

"They gave me a rifle. I refused to accept it. They gave it again, and I refused again. After a two-minute court session, they convicted me of rebellion," Hong said.

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