SC Adjudicated Conscientious Objectors as Valid Ground to Refuse the Mandatory Military Service in South Korea

SC Adjudicated Conscientious Objectors as Valid Ground to Refuse the Mandatory Military Service in South Korea

Seoul: On Thursday, November 1, the Supreme Court of South Korea adjudicated that in case of implications for multiple conscientious objectors, morals and religious beliefs are valid grounds to refuse joining the Country’s mandatory military service.

Almost 65 years post the Korean War, the law mandates conscription. This means compulsory enlistment of people in a national service. As per the South Korean law, every able-bodied South Korean male between the age of 18 and 35 is deemed to complete around two years of military service.

Anyone purposely evading the military duty for the prescribed mandatory period, stands in violation of the law. Therefore, making him accountable for punishment of serving 18 months of imprisonment. With no alternative community service option, around 19,000 conscientious objectors have been put behind bars since 1950, most of them being Jehovah’s Witnesses.

However, the apex Court overturned the conviction of a conscientious objector, months after a landmark constitutional Court ruling calling for an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors. Subsequently, an official of the Defence Ministry has mentioned that the Ministry is in the process of drawing up an alternative in light of the Constitutional Court ruling in June.

A conscientious objector is one, who claims the right to refuse to perform military service on grounds of freedom of thought, conscience or religion. It is a human rights issue, which gained its position as a right in the 2001, Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.  

The hearing pertained to Jehovah's Witness, Oh Seung-hun, who was called upon for military service in 2013. However, since he refused to join the services, he was deemed to be guilty for violation of law. Thereafter, he filed an appeal before the High Court, which was later dismissed. Subsequently, he moved the Supreme Court stating that over 900 similar cases are currently pending in the South Korean Justice system, with another 96 people currently serving prison terms for not fulfilling their duties. Seoul's armed forces majorly rely on the concept of conscription, whereby the military service often involves postings to front-line positions on the border with the North

Chief Justice Kim Myeong-Su along with other members of the bench observed that,

"It is the majority opinion of the supreme court that conscientious objection is... a valid reason (to refuse conscription)."

Furthermore, the Chief Justice was of the opinion that,

Freedom of conscience, is deemed an excessive constraint to an individual's freedom of conscience."

In his submissions before the top Court, Oh had stated that his reason for refusal was based on teachings of the bible. A verse in the holy book reads, everyone who uses a sword will be killed by a sword.” The applicant was well aware that his decision against the mandate would lead to punishment. However, he was willing to face disciplinary action on those grounds rather than supressing his inner voice and attempting to do something contrary to his religious beliefs. Therefore, he chose exclusion from the compulsory services as it was against the biblical teachings. 

The decision was derived at by a majority of nine votes to four, thereby rescinding a Supreme Court ruling from 14 years ago.

Jehovah's Witnesses welcomed the ruling, calling it a "huge step forward in ending this policy of imprisoning our fellow believers".

It is pertinent to note that under the ambit of law, South's military service mandate also implicates interruption or delay either in education or careers of men, to thereby comply the provisions of conscription. One such recent social implication was forced upon Tottenham striker, Son Heung-min. However, he secured an exemption by winning gold at this year's Asian Games in Indonesia.

Pursuant 1950-53 Korean War, rather than maintain a peace treaty, the South technically remains at war 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. However, the North Korean capital city, Pyongyangdenies responsibility for the mass killing.

In November the same year, the North shelled a South Korean border island, killing two marines, both comprising of young conscripts.

The reformative ruling by the Supreme Court was observed amidst the decision made in-line with recent political and security improvements on the peninsula and the suspension of South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises.South Korea and the United States agreed to a military alliance in 1953.Since 2009 air forces of South Korea and the U.S.A. have conducted the annual joint exercises named "Max Thunder". In 2018, the drills under the joint exercise began. However, on July 10, at a Cabinet meeting in Seoul, the Government decided not to hold this year's Ulchi drill scheduled for next month.