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Hankyoreh 21, February 7, 2001, “I Cannot Bear the Thought of Taking-Up Arms”

Reporter Shin-Yoon D.W. syuk@hani.co.kr

The Truth About Their Conscientious Objection to Military Service Was Obscured Until Now…Is Prison the Only Viable Option for Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Briefly turning to look at his mother, seated in the public gallery of the courtroom, the young man dressed in a purple prisoner’s uniform takes a deep breath and bracing himself, starts to speak slowly.
“Your Honor, I have voluntarily turned myself in because I refuse to be conscripted into the army. I refuse in order to maintain my Christian conscience as someone who serves the only God, Jehovah. From the State’s point of view, I deserve to be punished, but from the point of view of my God, who commands that I love my neighbor as I do myself, I am doing the only righteous thing.”

The Watchtower Society Claims, “More Than a Thousand Members in Jail”

(Caption: New recruit boot camp. Is it permissible to refuse to take up arms based on one’s personal conscience?)

On January 11 in Courtroom 352 of the Incheon District Court’s Bucheon Branch Court, a 22 year-old young man named Yi Nak-keun, in custody for breaking the Military Service Law, was making his last remarks. After his short statement, the trial was over in five minutes. The prosecutor pronounced a sentence of two years’ imprisonment, and a week later, on January 18, that sentence was carried out.
People like Yi, who refuse military service due to their religious conscience or political convictions, are called “conscientious objectors.” In the 1980’s some young men refused enlistment in the army for political reasons. But since then conscientious objectors have almost disappeared. From the 1990’s onward, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the only group of conscientious objectors left in our society.
In mainstream Christendom the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses are often regarded as heretical, and as such, their doctrines have been the source of religious controversy. The government was not interested in the validity of their doctrines. Rather, the State felt that it had to draw the line when it came to maintaining absolute national security. From the government’s viewpoint, maintaining the power of the state supersedes individual human rights. As a result, whether deliberately or subconsciously, the State turned its back on these citizens and obscured the details of their conscientious objection. Now it is time to begin a national discussion about them, not as a religious group, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, but merely as citizens refusing military service. “I personally would never agree with their doctrines,” says prosecutor Kim Du-sik, a Christian himself, “but their human rights in relation to conscientious objection must be guaranteed.”

According to the South Korea branch of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (hereinafter “the Watchtower Society”), since the 1990’s more than 500 young men have been imprisoned annually and at present more than 1,000 individuals are in prisons throughout the country. The Watchtower Society defends the accuracy of the numbers, saying, “We did an independent study and added up the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in about 30 prisons throughout the country.” In contrast, the Office of Manpower Administration, the Department of Defense [DOD], and the Ministry of Justice avoided taking any responsibility for the issue and simply repeated the statement that “we have no official statistics.” A DOD staffer could only provide unrealistic figures, saying, “According to statistics as of 1999, only ten servicemen on active duty have refused to take up arms.”

(Caption: Countless conscientious objectors have passed through the walls of this military prison located at Janghowon.)

Dating back to 1965, Supreme Court decisions have never once recognized the rights of conscientious objectors. The Supreme Court has consistently maintained that “conscientious decisions including objecting to the legal obligation of military service for the reason of religious doctrine are not part of the religious and conscientious freedoms protected under the Constitution.” The rebuttals of legal experts however, cannot be overlooked. According to them, conscientious objection is “a matter of conflict between freedom of conscience under natural law, which is universal and governs morality, and the duty of national defense, which is governed by positive law, or man-made legislation.” Professor Han Sang-beom of Dongguk University’s law department says, “It is an invasion of human rights to just punish them in order to maintain the letter of the (positive) law without a logical inspection of relevant issues.”

At 3:00 p.m. on February 2, with a late winter snowfall dusting the walls of Anyang Prison, a young man dressed in a blue volunteer’s uniform entered the interview room where I was waiting. Hong Tae-gyu, 23, wearing thick plastic glasses, greeted me with a smile, saying, “I am on my way back from cleaning.” His gentle demeanor is in stark contrast to the charge against him—mutiny. Hong was ordered to join the Nonsan Military Training Unit last June. Upon his refusal to take up a gun, he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on the charge of disobedience to the military court. It has been nine months since he was imprisoned, including time served in the Janghowon Military Prison en route to Anyang. Yi Nak-keun’s case is exceptional because he refused to enter the military camp outright. In contrast, Hong refused to take up arms after he had already entered the barracks. Hong’s is a typical example of how young Jehovah’s Witnesses reject military service. Since 1995 the majority of young Jehovah’s Witnesses have been given three years, the maximum sentence for disobedience. To my words of consolation he replied: “I have no regrets. However, I do hope that some alternative service system will be arranged so that other people won’t have to suffer imprisonment.”

A Time for Discussion About the Issue of Alternative Service.

Hong’s desire for an alternative service system reflects provisions already in place in many countries, like Germany and Taiwan. Such provisions allow individuals to fulfill their active military duty through alternative services such as caring for terminally ill patients and disposing of garbage as well as public services such as firefighting and maintaining public order. In most countries the term of alternative service is longer than the required period of military service. One scholarly dissertation, entitled “Why Discuss the Human Rights of Minorities and Vulnerable Populations?” states that the German constitution guarantees the right of refusal to take up arms for conscientious reasons. During World War II and the Vietnam War, the United States also made alternative service available for conscientious objectors. Even Israel, while engaged in military confrontation with the Arab world, acknowledged the right of conscientious objection. Moreover, recognition of conscientious objectors’ rights has not been limited to industrialized nations. The concept has spread even to developing countries like Brazil and Suriname. Today the trend toward conscientious objection is not merely religious in nature but also related to political convictions. Taiwan is a divided country on its way to reducing military power. It too adopted an alternative service system last September. As a result, Taiwanese conscientious objectors can now perform 33 months of public service in place of 22 months of military service. In the last year, 27 of Jehovah’s Witnesses and 3 monks [Buddhist] are known to have applied for alternative service there.

Despite this global trend, never has the issue of conscientious objection been raised for formal public discussion in South Korea. A DOD staff member says, “Adoption of the alternative service system has never been under consideration because of concerns related to national security.” That being said, some people are worried that “the alternative service system may be abused by individuals or organizations as a means of evading military service.” Regarding this concern, Chung Woon-young, spokesperson of the Watch Tower Society says, “That particular issue will not have a great impact if we have high standards for screening applicants’ qualifications and if we make the alternative service tougher than the actual military service.” He adds, “We are willing to endure a longer and harder term if it ensures alternative service.”

At an age when normally they would be just starting-out in life, conscientious objectors in South Korea lamentably begin their twenties as ex-convicts. Due to their criminal record, they rarely find jobs in large or public corporations. Through personal connections most objectors seek employment in smaller companies where the hiring process is less strict. Thirty-one year-old engineering school graduate Kim Hyung-min works as a home study tutor. He says, “My dream of becoming a professor was shattered when I made up my mind to reject military service.” He goes on to reveal, “I wish an alternative service system would be adopted so that others won’t experience the frustration and loss of dreams I have.”

Conscientious objectors’ family members suffer the consequences just as much as the objectors themselves. Choi Jun, 29, of Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, is one example. His father, not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was relieved of his duties as a brigadier general in the army due to Choi’s stance on military service. Under his mother’s tutelage, Choi became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses at a young age. In January 1994 he presented himself at a training camp as ordered but refused to bear arms. This fact was conveyed to his father, who at the time worked as a commander of the logistics group. His father tried—in fact, did everything in his power—to persuade his son to change his mind. It was in vain. Choi’s father was discharged, and his son was imprisoned. Looking back on those difficult days, Mr. Choi says with tears in his eyes, “It was agonizing to see my father lose his reputation as a result of my conscientious stance.” Many Jehovah’s Witness families with multiple sons are compelled to endure consecutive loss as they leave to serve prison terms, one after another. Lee Keum-cheol, 47, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Cheonho-dong, Gangdong-gu, couldn’t contain her joy last New Year’s day when her first son, Gang Tae-hee, 22, was released by special pardon. But the saga didn’t start nor did it end there. Her second son, Gang Tae-seung, 21, was put in jail last July and remains imprisoned. Since the early 1990’s, when her two younger brothers went to jail for the same reason, Lee has formed a pattern of supporting conscientious objectors. She sighs, saying, “Not a day has passed without anxiety since my brothers and sons were put in jail.”
Despite the grief experienced by conscientious objectors and their families, objectors are in a situation where they have not secured “political citizenship” yet. Professor Han Sang-beom from Dongguk University says, “It is because in our country’s history, we don’t have much experience fighting against State interference in our personal freedom.”

Fighters for National Independence Under Japanese Rule?

Jehovah’s Witnesses have always rejected conscription on the basis of their religious convictions. But responses to this rejection have varied throughout history, depending on the political climate. During World War II in Germany, Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned in concentration camps and then finally slaughtered because they wanted to avoid participation in the war. Under Japanese rule, Jehovah’s Witnesses were one of the few religious groups that firmly refused to pray at Japanese shrines. But under the military regime, this rejection aroused suspicions that they might be supporters of North Korea. “Our religious convictions have never changed, and we rejected military conscription because of those unwavering convictions. But according to the fluctuating situation of the times, we have been regarded as fighters for national independence on some occasions and punished as criminals on other occasions.” Chung Woon-young, team leader for the Watch Tower Society’s Public Information Desk, had a bittersweet smile when saying “What a historical irony it is!” The literal road leading to political citizenship for conscientious objectors involves the reduction of armaments, but psychologically speaking, that road will require the demonstration of tolerance by us all.

© Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania 2019.

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