Women Activists in South Korea’s Peace Movement

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Back to table of contents By Jungmin Choi, Solidarity for Peace and Human Rights

Militaristic Landscapes after Democratisation

Militarism in South Korea is based on the military, and the conscription system has considerable influence not only on men’s life, but also on women’s. Its influence ranges widely from direct and physical violence to the cultural and emotional atmosphere of society. Various difficulties face women activists in the field of conscientious objection to military service, national security, and peace and disarmament. This reveals the deep-rooted militarism in the South Korean society. Here I have put my impression and experiences as an activist who is interested in pacifism and feminism. Korea, as the only divided country in the world, is a place where military tension and possibility of armed conflicts between North and South exist. Although the distance between North and South has been mitigated throughout the long process of the reunification movement and neo-liberalist globalisation, society’s belief in militaristic security still continues. Throughout history, Koreans have viewed military and national defence as concepts that are fundamental to the national existence. This anxiety about security — especially in terms of the military system — has allowed the “Don’t Ask” conscription system to continue, and further, made people believe that the violation of human rights within the military is inevitable to a certain extent. As the traditional notion of “security” is emphasised, the sex difference becomes more specific, and masculine belligerence and violence are celebrated. This behaviour pattern is generally shown in international relations, the cold war, weapons competition, and relationships between women and men. Not to our surprise, the military is portrayed as an active defender of peace. In Korea, where the conscription system has been heavily enforced, it is undeniable that the images of women as protected, weak and second-class citizens have been required to form and maintain the power of militaristic culture and even the military itself. In Korean society where the balance of power is understood as the only way of survival, only men whose bodies are fit for combat and their masculinity are valued. Consequently, women, and people with disabilities who do not have such bodies, become marginalised. For this reason, the conscientious objectors in Korea are often compared to the emasculated or women; they become the second-class citizens who are excluded from society. The army and national defence has a deeply complicated history and ideology in South Korea. During more than 30 years of dictatorship, the military has become a sanctuary beyond the constraints of civil monitoring. There have been numerous violations of human rights inside the army, which continue to this day. Even as South Korea in general has developed in a more democratic direction, these transformations do not apply to military-related matters, as if the military is an exception from democracy. It is an open secret that the privileged few abuse their power to exempt their sons from military service. South Korea does not have universal conscription, since it is only men without money or power who are drafted. Recently, nationalism and patriotism in Korea — which serve as the foundation of self-reliant national defence — have been quite threatening. Not only the conservatives but also the leftists long for a country that would not have to take notice of other powerful countries, that would maintain its policy without regard to superpowers, and exercise its sovereign authority. Of course this kind of patriotism interplays with the military. It is now common to see popular young male celebrities proudly advertise their enlistment, promote patriotism, and witch-hunt those who evaded military service. Unlike in the past where the majority of people viewed going into the military as the “end of a celebrity’s career”, performing military service in order to protect women and family now improves their popularity. In contrast, one pop-star who was able to legally escape conscription due to his US citizenship is not allowed to return to Korea simply because he changed his earlier statement that he would give up US citizenship and go to the military.

Women and the Military

The debates around a court decision to rule preferential treatment (granting extra points for the men with active military service experience in search of a job) as unconstitutional clearly shows how women’s lives — often perceived to be unrelated to the military — are actually related to the military or conscription system in one way or another. On 23 December 1999, when the Constitutional Court declared the bonus point policy unconstitutional because it violates national equality, men who were provoked by the court’s decision committed cyber terrorism on the websites of women’s organisations and Ewha Woman’s University, the school the litigant went to. The websites were covered with swear words and threats and the activists at women’s organisations suffered from vomiting and headaches. In the end, the website had to be shut down. Afterwards, such acts have become popular, and consequently, feminist websites that criticised military or militaristic culture have all been devastated or shut down by men’s terrorist actions. In some cases, the profile of the writer or owner of the website was disclosed to internet pornography sites. For example, one woman suffered from over 60 phone sex calls a day. The suffering at Ewha Woman’s University did not stop there. In 2003 in the midst of the social debate over conscientious objection, Ewha’s homepage was once again shut down because the student government supported the conscientious objection movement. Since then, the Ewha’s website became known as the headquarters of the feminist movement, constantly being attacked by the militarist men whenever there is a social debate on women and military. The position of the “strong protector” is only maintained by the gratitude and respect of the protected (for example, the practice of writing a thank-you letter to random soldiers, which used to be done in elementary school). Those who are second-class citizens, including women who do not serve in the military or people with disabilities, who are only to be protected, are not supposed to voice their opinions. One of the common questions that I get as a conscientious objection movement activist is “why do women who don’t even serve in the military discuss the issue of military?”. This question shows the ideology of Korean society that has silenced women’s voices on the military or conscription, both visibly and invisibly. In my early days in the movement, I was able to argue about the issues online because I was perceived as a male due to my gender-neutral name. When I talk to someone whom I have not met yet in person, the person is always surprised that I am a woman. Now I am used to people’s surprised reply “you are a woman?”. In contrast, for TV debates or newspaper stories that need a photo, I did not have many opportunities to show my face. Not only because the host cared about the fact that I am a woman, but also because I was concerned for myself considering what had happened to the women speakers in previous instances. My self-censorship was so increased by these experiences that I found myself speaking about military, conscription, or issues on militarism only to a limited extent, or looking for a male writer even when one was not requested. My colleagues in the movement who experienced cyber terrorism against the student government of Ewha Woman’s University say that, to this day, they still do not tell strangers that they are its alumnae. People believe that women are not able to discuss anything related to military issues. This kind of experience-based responses — that women who do not serve in the military lack the authority to speak — defines the military as an exclusively masculine/male domain, restricting women’s access to it. This attitude prevents people from seeing how the Korean military and the Korean militaristic culture have been intensifying the mechanism of gender roles, the exploitation of human rights, and of a woman’s right to live. For these reasons, Korean women are perceived as speaking out against the abrogation of the bonus point system, and conscientious objection, in the context of being positioned as the wife or the mother of a soldier.

The Beginning of the Conscientious Objection Movement

For almost 60 years, people have continuously objected to military service, and been punished for their objection. But they never became a matter of interest until a weekly news magazine ran the issue as the cover story in early 2001. Before this article on the conscientious objection of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this society had treated conscientious objectors as if they were invisible. Not once before having a proper social discussion, it is now becoming a controversial issue. When we formed the conscientious objector movement, we started from showing the suffering of conscientious objectors and their families. Actually there were many people who were viciously beaten, sometimes even to death, for not holding a gun under the military dictatorship. The most urgent necessity was to regain the impaired reputation of conscientious objectors, and not with 100 logical words but to evoke an emotional echo to the society. According to our expectations, it caused a great stir in society, with people fully realising how excessive the governments violation was and how irresponsible it was for all of us to neglect it. But then we ran into systematic flak from the Ministry of National Defence and conservative Christian groups. They slyly represented conscientious objectors as equivalent to the privileged few who illegally dodge the draft. Also they placed excessive emphasis on the fact that most conscientious objectors believe in a specific religion so that it could be a special treatment for heretics. Soon, society turned its back on conscientious objectors, and no more rational discussion was possible.

Conscientious Objection Movement and Women

In almost every movement, feminist critique on male-dominated activism is not a new story any more. Feminist criticism, which took place in different forms in different fields, often faced strong opposition. To my understanding, the foundation for such an argument is that, feminist critique undermines the greater cause of the movement or erases the possibility of other more effective ways of resistance. However, I believe that the feminist challenge in both peace movements and women’s movements is not a mere attempt to create problems. Rather, it originates from ultimate differences in perspectives on peace. Women refused to be viewed as a singular group and to generalise our differences, and questioned where we stood within that name, “women” or “we” in reality. Moreover, women resisted the ways in which our sufferings get objectified for the purpose of the anti-US movement or of class struggle. We asked people to rethink and redefine the activist methodology that reproduces male-dominated behaviour.

Women’s marginalisation within the conscientious objection movement has to do with the short seven-year history of the movement. Fighting the resistance to and violence against the movement, we had no choice but to compromise our argument. This strategy has its positive sides; it shows the suffering and pain of the objector and people around him including family and friends. Nevertheless, it is also true that such representation also distorts the objectors’ suffering to meet the social expectation of them. Here, an objector is viewed as a “pitiful” victim of the state’s violence rather than an active resister to militarism. Consequently, the conscientious objectors — regardless of their real character — had to become “good people” who silently endured social criticism. This not only put a burden on themselves but also contributed to their supporters’ marginalisation — especially the women. This phenomenon was more common in the alternative social-service movement where the activism was excessively focused on the individual objectors where women only became secondary role players as supporters (for example, providing assistance to those in jail). On the other hand, in order to criticise the strong masculinity that society expects for men, the individual objectors themselves had to be super-heroes. They had no choice but to object to military service, not because they are extraordinarily brave but because they are weak — too weak to even be trained for military service that could possibly hurt someone. These gendered roles expected for women activists as well as the atmosphere that stresses blind obedience frustrated women activists and obscured what our movement aimed for.

Personally I hope that the conscientious objection movement becomes a movement that provides an opportunity for us to see where we are located in this society where violence is normalised, and whether we are a part of such violence. I hope it will be a movement that pushes us to think how violence gets created in our society and to make sure that we do not allow it to become a part of our daily lives — rather than understanding the world and setting the role of the movement through the public sphere and grand discourse.

Thinking of the conscientious objection movement as a process rather than a result: Wouldn’t this be true peace activism?

Thanks to Dongyoung Kim for translation from Korean to English

Published in: Women and Conscientious Objection - An Anthology

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