South Korea: United Nations' Human Rights Committee demands recognition of right to conscientious objection

The Human Rights Committee, considered the periodical report of the Republic of Korea during its 88th session this year. The official report of the government of Korea gives some insights into the situation of conscientious objectors in the country. According to the report, the "development of nuclear weapons by North Korea poses a serious threat to the existence and security of the Republic of Korea. Therefore, the Government does not recognise alternative forms of service for conscientious objectors to military service, for it may result in a rapid decline in its defence capability."

The Korean government argues: "In considering a system of alternative forms of service for conscientious objectors, the Government has taken into account the following problems: (a) conscientious objectors may become quite numerous due to the abstract and voluntary nature of religious and personal beliefs, which would make it impossible to maintain the current conscription system essential for the national security and defence; (b) in the context of current universal conscription system, exempting recipients of alternative service from basic military training, training for reserve forces and wartime mobilisation, which the normal conscripts bear as part of their military service, may create a violation of the principle of equality; and (c) as military human resources are ever declining due to a decreasing birth-rate, the introduction of alternative service may prompt a national security crisis."

MINBYUN Lawyers for Human Rights counter this argument in their report: "Considering the fact that annually 300,000-350,000 are potential soldiers on service, and annually 30,000 work as public service workers, 55,000 work as industrial skilled workers, 15,000 are expert research workers, 4,000 are public health workers, 36,000 are full-time reservists, and 50,000 work as on-duty police, totaling approximately 200,000 people who are working in alternative services annually, it is hard to believe that recognizing alternative service for conscientious objectors will weaken the Republic of Korea’s national defense."

The table below shows the data on criminal punishments of persons who refused to enlist based on conscience.

Data on criminal punishments for refusal to enlist based on conscience (Period: 2000-2003)

Total

Two or more years of imprisonment

From one and a half to less than two years of imprisonment

Suspended sentence

Halt of indictment

Acquittal

Suspension of indictment

Pending in court

1765

17

1142

3

2

41

2

558

The Human Rights Committee was not impressed by the arguments of the Korean government. In its "concluding observations", the Human Rights Committee writes: "The Committee is concerned that: (a) under the Military Service Act of 2003 the penalty for refusal of active military service is imprisonment for a maximum of three years and that there is no legislative limit on the number of times they may be recalled and subjected to fresh penalties; (b) those who have not satisfied military service requirements are precluded from employment by government or public organisations and that (c) convicted conscientious objectors bear the stigma of a criminal record (art.18)."

Consequently, the Committee recommends: "The State party should take all necessary measures to recognize the right of conscientious objectors to be exempted from military service. It is encouraged to bring legislation into line with Article 18 of the Covenant. In this regard, the Committee draws the attention of the State party to its General Comment 22 para.11 on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion."

In addition, the Committee considered two individual cases on the right to conscientious objection. However, these decisions have not been published yet.

According to Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (KSCO), more than 900 objectors were in prison in August 2006. The following is a list of pacifist, non-Jehovah's Witness objectors imprisoned on 1 December (Prisoners for Peace Day):

Kim Tae Hun, Box 20 P.O. Gunpoucheguk Gyeonggi-do, Korea, Zip Code 437-702, Seoul Jail, ref. No 2494, Phone. (+82 31) 423-6100~6, Fax. (+82 31) 423-6111, www.seoul.corrections.go.kr

Ko Dong Ju, Box 164 P.O. Seoulgeumcheonucheguk, Korea, Zip Code 152-707, Yeongdeungpo Jail, ref. No 2437, Phone. (+82 2) 2611-8100~7, Fax. (+82 2) 2612-5764, www.Yeonggu.corrections.go.kr

Choi Jae Young, Box 68 P.O. Jinjuucheguk Jinju-si Gyeongnam, Korea, Zip Code 660-912, Jinju Prison, ref. No 1204, Phone. (+82 55) 741-2181~2, Fax. (+82 55) 741-2428, www.jinju.corrections.go.kr

O Jeong Rok, Box 1 P.O. Seongyeonucheguk Seosan, Korea, Zip Code 356-851, Seosan Jail, ref. No 103, Phone. (+82 41) 669-6891~4, Fax. (+82 41) 669-6895, www.seosan.corrections.go.kr

Kim Young Jin, Box 99 P.O. Uijeongbuucheguk Gyeonggi-do, Korea, Zip Code 480-700, Uijeongbu Prison, ref. No 1723, Phone. (+82 31) 842-7601~3, Fax. (+82 31) 842-7080, www.uijeongbu.corrections.go.kr

Lee Yong Suk, Box 69 P.O. Namincheonucheguk Nam-gu Incheon, Korea, Zip Code 402-704, Incheon Jail, ref. No 2232

Phone. (+82 31) 217-7101~7, Fax. (+82 31) 217-7108, www.incheon.corrections.go.kr

Mun Sang Hyun, Box 144 P.O. Cheongjuucheguk, Korea, Zip Code 361-754, Cheongju Prison, ref. No 844, Phone. (+82 43) 296-8171~4, Fax. (+82 43) 296-7950, www.cheongju.corrections.go.kr

Kim Do Hyung, Box 164 P.O. Seoulgeumcheonucheguk, Korea, Zip Code 152-707, Yeongdeungpo Jail, ref. No 2479, Phone. (+82 2) 2611-8100~7, Fax. (+82 2) 2612-5764, www.Yeonggu.corrections.go.kr

Kim Hun Tae, Box 1 P.O. Seongdongucheguk Nonsan, Korea, Zip Code 320-941, Nonsan Jail, ref. No 370, Phone. (+82 41) 733-2220.1.4.6, Fax. (+82 41) 733-2227, www.nonsan.corrections.go.kr

Sources: Periodic report Republic of Korea, CCPR/C/KOR/2005/3, MINBYUN Lawyers for Human Rights, CONSIDERATION OF REPORTS SUBMITTED BY STATES PARTIES UNDER ARTICLE 40 OF THE COVENANT, Advanced unedited version, Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee, Korea, CCPR/C/KOR/CO/3/CRP.1, Email KSCO, 26 October 2006