National Commission proposes "alternative services" for conscientious objectors
by Theresa Kim Hwa-young

This is the first time a government body speaks out in favour of conscientious objectors. "Freedom of conscience is a primary human right which cannot be violated even in the situation of national emergency."

Seoul (AsiaNews) – The National Human Rights Commission of Korea has proposed that the Ministry of Defense and the National Assembly "find alternate forms of service for conscientious objectors or those who refuse to serve their obligatory military service".

It is the first time a government body has taken a decision in favour of objectors of military service since August 2004, when the Constitutional Court ruled that Korea's Military Service was "legitimate and constitutional". The human rights commission is a presidential body but has no legal powers.

"Freedom of conscience is a primary human right which cannot be violated even in the situation of national emergency,'' the commission said in a statement published on 26 December.

The phrase recalls the 18-month prison sentence handed down to Choi Myung-jin in 2004. Explaining the court's decision, the sentence reads: "… freedom of conscience does not take precedence over the duty of national defence…" The sentence set the pace for more than 220 related cases pending a court decision; many judges were inspired to hand down 'guilty' verdicts.

According to Korean law, all youth must undertake military service for some 26 months: no type of exemption is provided for, except for serious health problems. Desertion is punishable by up to three years in prison.

The Korean Defence Minister's response to the Commission proposal was negative. An official statement said: "We respect the recommendation of the National Human Right Commission and we will follow it if the National Assembly establishes a related law, but we should make a careful consideration about when we should have such a law."

A survey found that 72% of the population is against exemption for conscientious objectors. "A Korean man has the duty to protect his nation," said an association of Korean veterans.