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South Korea: No rights for conscientious objectors

According to a survey of 2,000 adults commissioned by the South Korean Ministry of Defence, 68.1 percent, or 1,365 of respondents, objected to allowing conscientious objectors to perform a substitute service. Some 28.9 percent, or 580 of them, said they supported the idea. The outcome of the survey runs counter to the results of an October survey, officials of the Military Manpower Administration said. The previous survey of 554 people, including lawmakers, lawyers, professors, journalists and religious leaders, said 85.5 percent supported the idea.
"The ministry's position that allowing alternative services for conscientious objectors based on a national consensus remains unchanged,'' Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told reporters. "At the moment, the ministry believes implementing the alternative system is premature.''

Hundreds of conscripts are jailed annually for their refusal to serve in the armed forces, according to the Military Manpower Administration (MMA). There were about 570 conscientious objectors last year.

The previous, center-left Roh Moo-hyun administration accepted a recommendation by the National Human Rights Commission in December 2005 to allow substitute service for objectors, such as working at public welfare facilities for a longer period of time than active service members.

The human rights watchdog recommended the government recognise the individual right to refuse compulsory military service because of religious beliefs.
Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (KSCO) released a statement on the same day, titled "Stop Making Excuses, Keep the promise!". In this statement, KSCO writes:
"Although this last survey conducted by the MMA showed many opposing opinions on alternative service, it is important to point out that there have been many other surveys that yielded just the opposite results. MMA's public hearing held last October showed that over 80% of community leaders were in favor of alternative service system, and in the public opinion survey held last September by the Realmeter & 961Sample, the number of people who were in favor of alternative service exceeded the other group (Realmeter: 44.3% in favor, 38.7% against; 961 Sample: 55.9% in favor, 38.9% against). Thus, survey results tend to vary by the time it‘s being conducted and the type of questions, the government cannot base its decision based on one opinion survey."
"On top of that, attempting to solve human rights issue of the minority group using opinion survey is definitely a dangerous idea. By definition, members of the minority group hold different ideas to what's generally accepted in their society. Judging the minority based on conventional standards, and forcing them to agree with them is a serious threat to the diversity in democracy and an act of violence to them. The MMA should never forget that a survey of public opinion is nothing more than an effective tool to understand public's consensus, and not an absolute criterion."

While South Korea's Supreme Court and Constitutional Court both rules in 2004 that the right to conscientious objection is not guaranteed by the Korean constitution, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled on two individual complaints from South Korea in January 2007 that not to provide for conscientious objection is a violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) (see co-update No 27, February 2007). The South Korean National Human Rights Commission recommended to introduce the right to conscientious objection and a substitute service for conscientious objectors in December 2005 (see co-update No 17, February 2006).
Consequently, the South Korean Ministry of Defence announced in September 2007 that it would introduce the right to conscientious objection (see co-update No 33, October 2007). However, since then the government changed, and the conservative government in power now is looks at the right to conscientious objection much less favourable.

Sources: The Korea Times: 68% Oppose Alternative for Conscientious Objectors, 24 December 2008, Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection: Stop Making Excuses, Keep the promise!, 24 December 2008.

Veröffentlicht in CO-Update, January 2009, No. 44