A young movement in search of direction

IssueJune - Aug 2003
Feature by Andreas Speck

In March 2003 an international conference on conscientious objection to military service, taking place in Seoul, attracted more than 400 participants over two days. The spectrum of participants was unusually broad: students, human rights lawyers, representatives from the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and representatives from some smaller South Korean parties.

The “international” contingent was mainly limited to the resource people:conscientious objectors from Israel and Serbia and Montenegro, the author of this article, as representative of War Resisters' International, a representative from the Quaker United Nations Office and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, from the Taiwanese alternative service administration,and from the German Central Office for the Rights and Protection of Objectors to Military Service for Reasons of Conscience. The resource people were met by a young conscientious objectors' movement in search of its direction. History In South Korea, public interest in conscientious objection is a very recent phenomenon. Until recently, only members of the Jehovah's Witnesses community and, to a lesser extent, of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, refused to perform military service. Their refusal, however, dates back to the times of the Japanese occupation of Korea before World War II, and again after the Korean War (1950-53) they found themselves imprisoned.

Little is know about the fate of Jehovah's Witnesses in North Korea; in the “democratic” South they receive regular prison sentences of three years for their refusal to serve--sentenced on a conveyor belt, 20 COs in one 30-minute trial. More than 1,100 Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists are currently in prison for conscientious objection; more than 10,000 have spent time in Korea's prisons since the Korean War. Only two years ago a progressive weekly newspaper published a report on the situation of Jehovah's Witnesses COs, and,since then, human rights organisations began to work on the issue. It was the right time: others started to show interest in conscientious objection, and on 17December 2001 Oh Tae-Yong, a Buddhist, publicly declared his conscientious objection. This was the beginning of a new movement.

The movement

The movement for conscientious objection is still small, and at present its image is dominated by human rights organisations. More than 30 NGOs came together to form Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (KSCO), a coalition which works for the recognition of the right to conscientious objection. At the other end of the political spectrum, student groups got involved and some of them publicly declared their conscientious objection. A wide range of activities was organised, often in cooperation with KSCO: a benefit concert at one of Seoul's universities, public meetings, press conferences in front of military offices, seminars on conscientious objection, demonstrations, and petitions. In February 2002 a Manifesto urging the recognition of the right to conscientious objection was published, with more than 1,500 signatures, among them many “celebrities”.


Developments since Oh Tae-Yong's declaration give reasons for hope. The situation of conscientious objectors has already improved slightly. Oh Tae-Yong was not imprisoned, and he began voluntary alternative service in an institution for disadvantaged people instead. Another conscientious objector, also not a Jehovah's Witness, Ho Keun Yoo, only spent 17 days in prison in October/November2002, and is now on bail, awaiting trial.

Some developments can also be reported from the legal front. At the end of January 2002, a judge at a Seoul district court referred the case of a conscientious objector to the Korean Constitutional Court. At issue is the constitutionality of Article 88 of the Military Service Law,which stipulates that those who refuse the draft are subject to up to three years in prison - the right to conscientious objection is not recognised. Judge Park said: “When there is a conflict between the duty of military service and basic constitutional rights like freedom of thought,conscience, and religion, they should be harmonised and rendered compatible with each other.” “The present court considers Section 88 of the Military Service Law, which refuses to acknowledge any form of conscientious objection to military service on any grounds, including religious or political beliefs, to be a potential threat to a conscientious objector's dignity and pursuit of happiness.” However, to date the Constitutional Court has not reached any conclusions on this issue.

A political movement

The “international conference” in March was another important step for the South Korean CO movement. One thing that surprised me was the strong participation of Jehovah's Witnesses--and even more surprising was that a Jehovah's Witness CO was invited to speak at an anti-war event organised by students, and that he actually spoke there.

By inviting and including representatives of the Jehovah's Witness community --something which is usually difficult to achieve, if not impossible--the Korean CO groups acknowledge the special history of Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea. And the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves seem to be aware that only a political CO movement in South Korea will be able to accomplish the right to conscientious objection--already a handful of non-Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to serve have moved further than 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses who went through Korea's prisons.

CO and the wider context

At present the South Korean CO movement is searching for its own position in the political scene. So far, they are closely associated with human rights organisations--to a large extent ignored by the traditional South Korean peace movement,which either sees conscientious objection as too hot a topic (in South Korea the military is a rarely challenged institution), or as irrelevant.

Some groups within KSCO - especially the students - clearly position conscientious objection within the anti-war movement. In the Korean context, of a very real military confrontation between North and South, it is particularly important to crack the myth of a possible military defence of South Korea. In this, conscientious objection can play a very important role.

Topics: War resisters