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Photo - REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

South Korea paving way towards alternative forms of national service for conscientious objectors

In a landmark Constitutional Court ruling on 28 June this year, South Korean authorities were ordered to impose substitutes to military conscription against conscientious objectors in the Republic's national service, nearly 65 years post-Korean War.

However, the court remained steadfast in its decision to uphold the imprisonment of able-bodied South Korean men between the age of 18 to 35 who have made clear attempts to evade their national service obligations under other circumstances.

The court ruled that while "it is legitimate to enforce military duty through criminal punishment", the absence of an alternative to military conscription violates the Constitution of the Republic of Korea.

Under South Korean law, those meeting the requirements to undergo national service and yet refuse to be conscripted will face jail up to 18 months.

As a consequence, approximately 19,000 conscientious objectors, the majority being Jehovah's Witnesses, have been imprisoned since 1950.

The Republic's defence ministry had announced that it had been looking into alternatives to military service and "will decide on a policy at the earliest possible date in line with the Court decision".

South Korea's military duties revolve largely around the high-risk frontline posting of guarding the border with North Korea, and conscripts are not exempt from being sent to such high-risk areas near the border.

For example, a South Korean border island was bombarded by North Korea in November 2010, which resulted in the deaths of two marines who were under conscription, The Straits Times reported.

However, North Korea has been turning down a notch on its nuclear force through its summits with its Southern counterpart and the United States.

Voices in favour of pursuing supposedly more pacifist forms of national service have also multiplied of late.

On the other hand, South Korea's higher-level courts have observed a consistent preference for military conscription.

Approximately 200 conscientious objectors in South Korea are currently imprisoned, while 883 others are awaiting verdicts as a result of judges putting off making decisions in favour of the Constitutional Court's ruling, according to The Straits Times.

However, the appeals from 28 objectors who had cited the freedom of conscience guaranteed in the constitution led to the softening of the court's stance as mentioned earlier.

Speaking to Amnesty International, Song In-ho, who served 14 months of jail term for refusing military conscription on the grounds of conscience, was elated when the new court ruling was announced.

“I dreamt about this day but never imagined it would come so quickly," he said.

Song added: “My dreams have been put on hold throughout my life, because I knew they cannot come true due to my criminal record. Maybe now I can get those dreams back.”

The lives of conscientious objectors, despite their grounds for resisting military conscription which is primarily based on ethical and moral principles, are often tarred as a result of their imprisonment, which will inevitably leave them with a criminal record and branded by South Korean society for life, according to Amnesty International.

Touching on the recent court ruling on alternative means of national service for conscientious objectors, the international human rights organisation expressed its concerns regarding the potential loopholes in the new ruling:

This ruling provides the South Korean authorities with an opportunity to end this grave violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under international law, conscientious objectors should not suffer any legal or other penalty.

Yet, there are many remaining questions for the South Korean authorities: Who will assess whether someone is qualified for alternative service, and through what sort of process? Will alternative service be guaranteed to fall under civilian, and not military, control? Can the authorities ensure that no one will be disadvantaged for seeking alternative service? Will previously sentenced conscientious objectors have their criminal records cleared?

There is much to celebrate in the long-awaited decision from the Constitutional Court. However, the Court also ruled that the Military Service Act, which imprisons those who fail to enlist without justifiable grounds, does not violate the Constitution. The Military Service Act remains unchanged and, for the time being at least, conscientious objectors can still be jailed.

The Supreme Court will conduct a public hearing at the end of this month regarding the sentencing of conscientious objectors.

Singapore stands its ground on the question of conscientious objectors 

Meanwhile, in Singapore, the hardline stance against conscientious objectors remains, with seemingly no tangible plans to provide alternative means to military conscription in national service.

Under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, conscientious objectors, with the addition of general comment No. 22 (1993), have a right to be exempted from military conscription "inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force might seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one’s religion or belief", according to the United Nations' Human Rights Committee.

However, in a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year, Singapore cited Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises that the exercise of the rights and freedoms of an individual, and went on to emphasise that these rights and freedoms are "subject to limitations to meet the requirements of public order and the general welfare of the society".

To further justify the case for not offering alternatives to military conscription for conscientious objectors, Singapore stated in its contributions that "national defence was a fundamental sovereign right under international law", and that "where individual beliefs or actions ran counter to such a right, the right of a State to preserve and maintain national security must prevail".

As of August this year, according to JW.org, 10 conscientious objectors are currently "imprisoned for their faith" as Jehovah's Witnesses in Singapore. All of them are youths who have refused to be conscripted for military duty in National Service.

The Singapore government deregistered Jehovah's Witnesses and imposed a ban on its publications in 1972 on the grounds that the church posed a threat to "public harmony".

According to Section 33 of the Enlistment Act of Singapore, which was passed in 1970:

any person within or outside Singapore who –

(a) fails to comply with any order or notice issued under this Act;

(b) fails to fulfil any liability imposed on him under this Act;

(c) fraudulently obtains or attempts to obtain postponement, release, discharge or exemption from any duty under this Act;

(d) does any act with the intention of unlawfully evading service;

(e) gives the proper authority or any person acting on his behalf false or misleading information; or

(f) aids, abets or counsels any other person to act in the manner laid down in paragraph (a), (b), (c), (d) or (e),

shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years, or to both.