Lawyer files petition against law punishing conscientious objectors

Korea Times, 15 May 2011

By Lee Hyo-sik

A lawyer indicted for refusing to serve in the military has filed a petition with a court against the Military Service Law that puts conscientious objectors behind bars, arguing the law violates individuals’ freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed under the Constitution.

Baek Jong-keon, 26, who has been practicing law since he graduated from the Judicial Research Training Institute in February, told The Korea Times that he filed a petition with the Seoul Central District Court on May 9.

Baek, a Jehovah Witness, asked the court to review the current law dictating rights and obligations of conscripts over whether it infringes upon their Constitutional rights to reject the mandatory military service.

``Refusing to serve in the military is not to pursue individuals’ well-being. It is an act of promoting human dignity, world peace and prosperity of mankind. But the Korean government applying a universal legal standard toward all conscientious objectors clearly restricts individuals’ freedom of conscience and religion,’’ Baek said.

He also said it is unconstitutional to ban those who pass the nation’s bar exam from becoming a judge, a prosecutor or a lawyer for five years because they refuse to undergo a four-week military training program.

Under the Military Service Law, those who refuse conscription without legitimate causes are sentenced to imprisonment of up to three years. The law does not recognize conscientious objectors, who are mostly Jehovah Witnesses, as those with legitimate causes.

About 16,000 Korean men refusing to serve in the military for either their religious beliefs or no apparent reasons have been put behind bars. The Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the conscription law is constitutional.

Despite the previous rulings, Baek decided to wage a legal battle to publicize the issue of conscientious objectors.

``I was called upon by the Military Manpower Admiration to report to an army recruit training center on April 11. But I did not. So, the prosecution indicted me and asked the court to put me behind bars for 18 months,’’ he said.

Baek said the ruling is due on June 2, stressing even if the court rules against him, he will appeal to higher courts. ``I am willing to exercise all my legal rights guaranteed under the Constitution to let people know that conscientious objectors suffer from a great deal of pain.’’

He said the Ministry of National Defense should introduce alternative military service programs for him and other conscientious objectors. In 2007, the ministry studied a range of alternative schemes. But it withdrew the idea the following year after facing unfavorable public sentiment.