South Korea allows conscientious objection to military service

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South Korea’s Supreme Court said on Thursday that conscientious objection is a valid reason to refuse the country’s mandatory military service.

South Korean law requires nearly every able-bodied male between the ages of 18 and 35 to complete around two years of military service. If a conscripted person refuses “without a valid reason” then he faces a jail time of up to three years.

Around 19,000 men, most of them Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been jailed since 1950 for refusing the mandatory service on moral and religious grounds. 

The top court’s ruling overturned the conviction of a 34-year-old man surnamed Oh, a Jehovah’s Witness whose initial guilty verdict was upheld at the appellate court. Oh was called to military service in 2013 but refused.

Punishing conscientious objectors “for refusing conscription on grounds of religious faith, in other words, freedom of conscience, is deemed an excessive constraint to an individual’s freedom of conscience,” Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su said.

The Supreme Court had in earlier cases maintained that religious beliefs or conscience were not valid reasons to refuse mandatory military service.

The ruling is expected to impact some 930 cases of alleged violations of the law pending in courts.

Changing attitude

The Supreme Court’s ruling is the latest sign of a changing attitude towards conscription in the country.

In June, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that the current law, which does not specify alternatives to military service, does not align with the country’s constitution.

Lower courts have also acquitted several conscientious objectors this year.

The Defense Ministry has already said it will gradually shorten periods of mandatory military service by 2-3 months until 2022, from 21 months to 18 months for army servicemen.

South Korea remains technically at war with North Korea as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty. It is one of the few countries that have mandatory conscription for all men.

But the two countries have seen their relations thaw in the past few months.

ap/sms (AFP, Reuters)

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