15 May – International Day on Conscientious Objection
The South Korean conscientious objection movement is still very young. It only dates back to the year 2000, when human rights organisations for the first time organised to highlight the fate of Jehovah's Witnesses, who had gone to prison for their conscientious objection since 1939. Since then, more than 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses had gone to prison for their objection to military service, and many conscripts and also political prisoners had been aware of this, but it did not enter public consciousness. This changed in 2000, and in December 2001 a new movement for conscientious objection was born when Oh Tae-yang, a pacifist and Buddhist, declared his conscientious objection.
Nine years and more than 5,000 objectors later (the vast majority still Jehovah's Witnesses), there is still no right to conscientious objection in South Korea, in spite of some astonishing achievements. In fact, the change of government in December 2007 led to a backlash against the CO movement, and the new government has stepped back from some promises made by the previous government – especially the promise to introduce a right to conscientious objection. For this reason, War Resisters' International decided to focus on the situation in South Korea for the International Day on Conscientious Objection – 15 May 2009.
From human rights to antimilitarism and nonviolence
When the Korean CO movement started, it was dominated by human rights organisations, and the discourse focused on the human rights of conscientious objection, based on religious freedom. While some peace organisations were part of the movement from the beginning, a discourse of peace and antimilitarism was not very visible within the movement in its early days. This is understandable. In the early times, the movement was a reaction to the routine imprisonment of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the silence about this. This was about to change – first slowly, with the declaration of conscientious objection of Oh Taeywang, and then faster, with the Iraq war, the despatch of Korean troops to Iraq, and the CO declaration of Cheol-min Kang in November 2003, a conscript who refused to continue his military service based on his opposition to the war in Iraq.
The movement also embraced nonviolence as a tool of struggle. It learned about nonviolence from a variety of sources, organised workshops, an annual peace camp, and took part in other campaigns, promoting nonviolence.
Despite the fact that the right to conscientious objection has still not been recognised in South Korea, the movement had quite a few legal and political achievements:
- a reduction of the usual punishment from three years to 18 months. According to the present legal situation, this is the minimum punishment which will lead to a discharge from the military, and therefore avoid a new call-up;
- conscientious objectors are no longer tried by military courts, but by civilian courts;
- a ground breaking decision of the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the right to conscientious objection to military service, clearly stating that not to provide for conscientious objection is a violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
- a recommendation of the South Korean National Human Rights Commission to recognise the right to conscientious objection;
- even an announcement of the South Korean Ministry of Defence that they would introduce a right to conscientious objection, although after a change of government they renounced this earlier statement.
And according to several opinion polls a majority of South Koreans today supports the idea of a right to conscientious objection.
For a movement that is only eight years young this list of achievement is very impressive.
While the movement was pretty close to achieving its first aim, the introduction of the right to conscientious objection, the change of government following the presidential elections of December 2007 changed this. On 24 December 2008, the Ministry of Defence announced that the right to conscientious objection could not be granted, as it was not supported by the Korean people (the question is, why the survey conducted on behalf of the Ministry of Defence came to such a different result – who pays determines the outcome?).
A government turn to the right has strengthened the forces of militarism and anti-communism again, which are strictly opposed to granting any rights to conscientious objectors – in spite of inernational obligations under human rights treaties, which require South Korea to recognise conscientious objection.
More pressure needed
The Korean CO movement has in the meantime filed about 500 more complaints with the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. It can be expected that all 500 will be decided in the same way as the initial two in 2006 – that South Korea is violating human rights by not granting the right to conscientious objection.
War Resisters' International highlights the situation in South Korea on 15 May 2009, to increase the pressure from the international movement of conscientious objectors. Conscientious objectors from all over the world will gather in Seoul in May to show their support with the South Korean objectors. You to can show your solidarity. Organise an event in front of a Korean embassy or consulate! Write to the South Korean president, demanding the right to conscientious objection.
War Resisters' International
Address for protest letters:
President Lee Myung-bak
Republic of Korea