Decision of the Constitutional Court of Korea on Conscientious Objection

This is a summary of the Constitutional Court Decision. Here you can find the full version

Background of the Case

The Military Service Act provides that a person who is drafted for military service yet fails to enroll or report, with no justifiable cause, shall be punished by imprisonment for up to six(6) months or fine of up to two million(2,000,000) Korean Won. The requesting petitioner is accused of violating the Military Service Act for failure to enroll for military service, while served with the notice of enlistment for active military service from the Commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration obligating him to enroll for active military service. The requesting party petitioned the court to request constitutional review, claiming that the Military Service Act applicable to the accused facts of the underlying case infringed the freedom of conscience of those who objected to military service on the ground of their religious conscience. The court thereupon accepted the petition and filed a request for constitutional review with the Constitutional Court.

Summary of the Decision

The Constitutional Court, in a 7:2 opinion, held the Military Service Act not unconstitutional. The summary of the reasoning is as follows:

1. Majority Opinion

The public interest to be achieved by the legal provisions at issue in this case is the very important one of 'national security,' which is the prerequisite for the existence of a nation and for all liberty and freedoms. When such an important public interest is at issue, an immoderate legislative experiment that might harm national security may not be demanded in order for a maximum guarantee of individual liberty and freedom. Considering the security situation of Korea, the social demand concerning the equity of conscription, and the various restrictive elements that might accompany the adoption of the alternative military service system, the current situation does not assure that the adoption of the alternative military service system will not harm the important constitutional legal interest of national security. In order to adopt the alternative military service system, peaceful coexistence should be stabilized between South Korea and North Korea, and the incentives to evade military service should be eliminated through the improvement of the conditions of military service. Furthermore, a consensus among the members of the community that allowing alternative service still serves toward realizing the equality of the burdens in performing military duty and does not impair social unity should be formed, through the wide spread understanding and tolerance of the conscientious objectors within our society. The judgment of the legislators that the adoption of the alternative military service is presently a difficult task, where such prerequisites are yet to be satisfied, may not be deemed as conspicuously unreasonable or clearly wrong.
However, the legislators should seriously assess the possibility of eliminating the conflicting relationship between the legal interests of the freedom of conscience and the national security, and also the possibility of the coexistence of these two legal interests. Even if the legislators determine not to adopt the alternative military service system, the legislators should carefully deliberate whether to supplement the legislation so that the institution that implements the law may take measures to protect conscience through the application of law in a way favorable to conscience.

2. Dissenting Opinion of Two Justices

It is undeniable that the conscientious objection to military service is based upon the earnest hope and resolution with respect to the peaceful coexistence of the human race. The ideal toward peace is something that the human race has pursued and respected over a long period of time. In this sense, the objection to military service by the conscientious objectors should not be viewed as the avoidance of hardship of military service or the demand of protection as free-riders while failing to perform the basic obligation to the state. They have been sincerely pleading for alternative ways to service as they can in no way perform military duty to bear arms. The disadvantages they have to endure due to the criminal punishment for evasion of military service is immense. Also, in light of the gross number of our armed forces, the impact upon the national defense power of the military service by the conscientious objectors on active duty to bear arms is not of the degree that merits a discussion of the decrease in combat capabilities thereby. The duty of national defense is not limited to the obligation to directly form a military force to bear arms by, for example, serving the military pursuant to the Military Service Act. Therefore, by imposing upon the conscientious objectors an obligation that is similar or higher thereto upon considering the time period and the burden of the military service on active duty, the equity in performing the duty of national defense may be restored.

3. Separate Concurring Opinion of One Justice

The faith of the petitioner is a religious one, thus the freedom of religion as well as the freedom of conscience is at issue. The Constitutional Court may not judge the legitimacy of the religious tenets, but it may only determine whether their effect upon society is acceptable in reality. Here, the objection to bear arms, which guarantees national security and the protection of national territory, is impermissible under our constitutional order. On the other hand, the external expression of the freedom of conscience that is not based upon religion is subject to restrictions, and the permissibility of the restriction depends upon whether the conscience has universal validity. Here, the objection to bear arms, which is to defend against unanticipated aggressions may hardly be deemed as conscience with universal validity. In addition, the recommendation of the majority opinion to assess alternative civilian service is inappropriate under the principle of separation of powers.

4. Separate Concurring Opinion of One Justice

It may hardly be deemed that the conscientious objectors have also given up the protection of themselves by free-riding on others' obligation to serve the military. Then, whether the conscience of those who object to the military service on the ground of conscience may fall within the meaning of conscience that is the object of constitutional protection is itself questionable, as such conscience is no more than a hope that is an antinomy, which lacks consistency and universality. Therefore, punishing those who object to military service on the ground of conscience is not beyond the external limit of justice. The recommendation for the legislators upon legislative matters with respect to the alternative military service system, which is irrelevant to the subject matter of review of this case, is not appropriate as it is beyond the limit of judicial review.

Notes

This is an extract from the original decision, extracted by the Korean Constitutional Court.
The full version can be seen under http://wri-irg.org/node/6216
The original is from: http://english.ccourt.go.kr/home/view2/xml_content_view02.jsp?seq=10078&cname=영문판례&eventNo=2002Hun-Ka1&pubflag=0&eventnum=&sch_keyword=&cid=01040002
Date accessed February 16, 2009.

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