Welcome to Peace News, the newspaper for the UK grassroots peace and justice movement. We seek to oppose all forms of violence, and to create positive change based on cooperation and responsibility. See more

"Peace News has compiled an exemplary record... its tasks have never been more critically important than they are today." Noam Chomsky

  • facebook
  • rss
  • twitter

Personal experience from a Korean CO

For decades nobody has been concerned about the conscientious objection issue, even though thousands of members of the Jehovah's Witness community have been imprisoned for their refusal to serve.

After I revealed my conscientious objection, I was met with positive and supportive gestures from my friends.

But when I was imprisoned for 17 days because of my conscientious objection I finally had the opportunity to meet people that “have to live their life as offenders because they have a specific faith, and perform what they learn from their religion”. They have lived for decades like this, and the situation has become daily life for the Jehovah's Witnesses. Peace and human rights workers treat the issue very seriously.

Honestly, I didn't know their pain before I decided to refuse to serve and was sent to prison, moreover I had even disregarded them. I had not acknowledged their pain, and [for this I] felt ashamed. But at the same time I was glad that I could open my eyes to their rights, which are universal human rights.

I am also one of the victims of the former authoritarian government; now I could feel that their pain was like mine. In prison I watched them carefully, it is hard to talk about because I only stayed with them for a short time. But at least I can say that they are very sincere [...]. They would have been “normal people” if they had not refused to serve. But reality did not allow them to live normal lives.

Their strict faith declares, “don't kill anybody and don't even grasp any instrument to kill”, this is the main reason they refuse to serve. They have called [for] an opportunity to perform an alternative service benefiting society, but their request was not accepted.

Nevertheless, in prison they serve alternative service in various ways, such as assisting wardens, cooking or cleaning. The officials of the prison treat them as human resources, rather than criminals. I found it interesting that they were given the opportunity to choose. They could move to their favourite room, and change the rules of their room. This was an opportunity to solve conflicts between the inmates. I can confirm that various choices [here] could be more rational and peaceful than unification.

I hope [other] conscientious objectors can have their own choice.

I know that there are the different voices of concern about alternative service in South Korea. “Who is likely to serve if alternative service is adopted?” “If alternative service is adopted than nobody will serve in the army because alternative service is less dangerous!”

However, in Taiwan we can see that young men do not like to serve alternative service if it is longer and harder than military service. With alternative service the social welfare system will develop, social stability will spread, and so on.

Personally, I hope, [for my] alternative service, to serve within de-mining, first aid, service for disabled persons, or serving at a farm. If conscientious objectors could serve through such kind of work, it would be much more useful for society than imprisonment.

Before I got arrested I served at a house for disabled people, and provided lectures at various universities about “conscientious objection and alternative service”. While working at the house for disabled people, I recognised that the government have to protect personal lives rather than spending money to prepare war. The social system has to support people who can't take care of themselves, so they can live their lives as human beings. Alternative service is one way to do it. We already have enough soldiers in the Korean peninsula.

Many people are negative to begin with. In meetings with students they were also very negative at first, but I only needed two hours to change their way of thinking. Some are misunderstood, and some have problems overcoming their [lack of] social awareness. Through meetings and lectures with students, we could persuade and spread the idea of conscientious objection among the people.

Ho Keun Yoo is a conscientious objector in South Korea. This text is an edited extract from a book produced following an international conference on conscientious objection held in Seoul in December 2002.

Topics: War resisters