After historic breakthrough, conscientious objectors face new challenges in South Korea

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A photo from a protest in solidarity with conscientious objectors in South Korea
A protest in solidarity of conscientious objectors in front of South Korea’s Constitutional Court in 2015. Photo by World Without War

This article was first published by Waging Nonviolence.

South Korea’s Ministry of Defense proposed a system for alternative service to the military on Dec. 28, following a historic decision by the Constitutional Court in June, which ruled that the existing law does not guarantee freedom of conscience.

The court’s decision —which was a major victory for the movement to recognize conscientious objection in South Korea — has sparked a fierce debate over the issue. There have been tangible achievements, such as the Supreme Court finding a conscientious objector to be innocent for the first time ever on Nov. 1. However, the struggle over how the alternative service system will work is just beginning.

Koreans strongly believe that military power is needed to defend the country, given its long history of foreign occupation and war. Korea was colonized for 35 years by neighboring Japan a hundred years ago. After liberation, the two Koreas fought an all-out war for three years, and there has been constant military conflict of varying intensity ever since.

The court’s decision is significant considering how recently this issue was put on the national agenda. There were no political conscientious objectors to military service during the mass democratic movement against the military dictatorship in the 1980s. At that time, the student and labor movements that led the movement in Korea were famous for their militaristic cultures.

While there have been more than 19,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been imprisoned since 1945 for refusing to serve in the military, the political conscientious objectors and peace activists deserve credit for making it a social issue. More than 15 years of resistance to military service led to this decision by the judiciary, which is said to be the most conservative institution in Korean society.

Strategies that enabled success

The biggest factor influencing the recent decisions by the courts is that objectors have kept coming forward, thereby continuing to address conscientious objection as a social issue. Political objectors, in particular, have made their existence visible by speaking actively about their pacifism. By using a variety of tactics — such as holding press conferences and organizing parties with supporters — they have turned their stories of rejecting the military into a social movement.

At the center of this movement is the organization I work for — World Without War, or WWW — which was formed in 2003 by conscientious objectors and peace activists to support conscientious objection and promote the introduction of alternative service. WWW offered counseling to those who were concerned about refusing military service. The organization also worked together with these conscientious objectors to consider, plan and implement ways to communicate their ideas to Korean society. People who refuse to serve in the military naturally gathered around the WWW and went to jail after declaring their conscientious objection to military service.

In the early days of the campaign, WWW mainly talked about creating alternative service rather than how to prevent objectors from being sent to prison. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the sending of Korean soldiers to fight there in 2003, participation in the campaign for conscientious objection gradually came to be seen as civil disobedience against state violence. This strengthened the peace movement and led people to reject the military for a wider variety of reasons.

Soldiers have refused military service after witnessing state violence against protesters or troops being sent to fight in unjust wars; feminists have refused in order to redefine and expand the understanding of masculinity, which the military has distorted; and queer activists have rejected the norms around gender and sexual orientation forced upon them by the military when they declare their conscientious objection with WWW.

WWW worked to expand its contact with the international community while continuing its conscientious objection campaign. International peace movements such as War Resisters’ International, or WRI, have been providing important advice, planning and help executing campaigns since the beginning of the Korean movement. For Korean civil society, where the issue of objecting to military service was unfamiliar, international solidarity was an oasis in the desert. Strategies for campaigns and case studies from other countries have been of great help. WWW has also engaged with the United Nations and other international bodies. In particular, international law and international human rights treaties have played an important role in influencing the judiciary to rule in favor of conscientious objection.

In 2007, the Roh Moo-hyun government decided to introduce an alternative service system, but the decision was completely reversed by the Ministry of Defense after the conservative Lee Myung-bak government came into power. After that setback, activists felt helpless. They had done everything they could think of, including organizing all kinds of street actions, lobbying to put pressure on the National Assembly, creating international solidarity and engaging the international human rights bodies. Given Korea’s political landscape, it was questionable whether change would be possible if the conservative government continued. Activists were tired, discouraged, and above all else, had lost track of what to do and what could be done.

To reflect on its activism and re-energize plans to build future campaigns, WWW hosted a nonviolence training using Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan tool, with the help of WRI. This proved to be very timely and necessary for those involved in the campaign. This training allowed the activists to feel re-empowered. They were able to ease their anxiety by learning that social movements are a long process and by finding strategies they needed to achieve their short- and long-term goals. In addition, each activist was able to actively find their roles in the campaign on the path to success.

The leadership of women also had a great influence on the Korean conscientious objection movement. Since military service is only mandatory for men, women have naturally taken on leadership roles as men who refuse are imprisoned. This has enabled female activists to lead the campaign against military service in Korea, which has led to the development of a more equal and democratic movement. WWW therefore did not fall into easy traps associated with conscientious objection movements, such as the heroizing of male objectors.

Efforts to overcome the limits of success

With the Constitutional Court’s decision, the introduction of an alternative service system is now a reality. However, some officials in the Ministry of National Defense and the government are not interested in addressing whether alternative service meets human rights standards. The conservative party, for example, is arguing that alternative service should be used as a form of punishment.

The system proposed by the ministry on Dec. 28, requires those who opt for alternative service to work twice as long as they would if they joined the military, and limits their service to correctional facilities. If the introduction of alternative service follows this approach, it may not be a way to expand freedom of conscience or weaken militarism, but rather serve as another way to punish conscientious objectors.

As a result, WWW is working with other civil society organizations to ensure that the government’s proposed alternative service is made available in a more human rights-friendly and non-punitive manner. Campaigns are currently being organized to pressure the Ministry of National Defense and persuade the government, as well as improve public opinion on conscientious objection.

With the help of Joomin Park — a member of the National Assembly, who is a human rights lawyer and an advocate of conscientious objection — WWW will be making a list of lawmakers who may be easier to persuade and targeting them with actions, both online and offline. They also plan to introduce examples of alternative service from other countries that are more just.

WWW is fully aware of the fundamental limitation of alternative service and is now preparing to develop the anti-militarism movement after its introduction. Activists have held seminars and discussions on this topic, and in the coming months will hold workshops to set goals and strategies for WWW as the movement evolves beyond alternative service.

Author information

Yongsuk Lee, World Without War

Translation by Jungmin Choi and proofreading by Tom Rainey Smith.

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