South Korea’s supreme court ruled Thursday that moral and religious beliefs are valid reasons to refuse the country’s mandatory military service, in a case that has implications for hundreds of conscientious objectors.
Some 65 years after the end of the Korean War, nearly every able-bodied South Korean male between the ages of 18 and 35 must still complete around two years of military service.
Anyone refusing the call-up has usually ended up in prison for 18 months, with more than 19,000 conscientious objectors jailed since 1950, most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a conscientious objector on Thursday, months after a landmark constitutional court ruling that authorities had to provide an alternative to joining the military.
At the centre of Thursday’s case is Jehovah’s Witness Oh Seung-hun, who was called up in 2013 but refused.
“It is the majority opinion of the supreme court that conscientious objection is… a valid reason (to refuse conscription),” said Supreme Court chief justice Kim Myeong-Su.
Punishing conscientious objectors “for refusing conscription on grounds of religious faith, in other words, freedom of conscience, is deemed an excessive constraint to an individual’s freedom of conscience”, he added.
The decision overturned a previous Supreme Court ruling 14 years ago.
Oh, 34, said his refusal stemmed from biblical teachings.
“The Bible says that everyone who uses a sword will be killed by a sword,” Oh told AFP.
“I expected to suffer for objecting to conscription but I thought the pain I would feel by not listening to my inner voice would be far worse,” he added.
Jehovah’s Witnesses welcomed the ruling, calling it a “huge step forward in ending this policy of imprisoning our fellow believers”.
“Today the Supreme Court has brought South Korea more in line with international norms,” said spokesman Paul Gillies.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than 900 similar cases are pending in the South Korean justice system, with 96 people currently serving prison terms for not fulfilling their duties.
The South remains technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.
But the ruling comes amid a dramatic dialling-down of tensions on the peninsula, with Pyongyang holding summits with both the South and the US, long its sworn enemy.
A defence ministry official said it was drawing up an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors in light of the June court ruling.
Former conscripts were unhappy about the decision, calling it unfair.
“I’d understand if someone is incapable of joining the military because of some inevitable reason, but I don’t think it’s fair if it’s because of religious reasons,” said 26-year-old Park Jae-hyeong.
Seoul’s armed forces rely heavily on conscription, and military service often involves postings to front-line positions on the border with the North.
In May 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, killing 46 sailors including 16 who were on military service.
In November the same year, the North shelled a South Korean border island, killing two marines — both of them conscripts.
Traditionally men have had to interrupt or delay either their education or their careers to comply with the military service requirement, with Tottenham striker Son Heung-min a high-profile recent example.
He only secured an exemption — avoiding a potentially ruinous career break — by winning gold at this year’s Asian Games in Indonesia.
But South Korea has recently hinted at a possible reform of the military service exemption programme, which critics say unfairly rewards athletes and artists for one-time achievements.
South Korean footballer Jang Hyun-soo on Thursday was banned for life from playing on the national team by the Korea Football Association for submitting false documents required for his military exemption.
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