07/15/2004, 00.00
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Supreme Court rules against conscientious objection

The Supreme Court confirmed the 18-month sentence imposed on Choi Myung-jin (see photo), a 23-year old Jehovah's Witness who refused to join the military for reasons of conscience. The sentence ends all uncertainties surrounding the issue of conscientious objection, an issue that has deeply divided South Korean public opinion for some time. In the past, lower court decisions were often at variance with one another, now those currently looking at 220 similar cases may reference the Supreme Court decision in passing judgment.

In its ruling, the court stated that "if national security is not protected because of the failure to serve the mandatory military service, the dignity and value of human beings cannot be guaranteed. One's freedom of conscience does not take precedence over the obligation of national defence. One's freedom of religion and conscience should be allowed within a degree to which other constitutional values and the nation's law and order are not threatened. Therefore, article 88 of the Military Service Law that calls for punishing draft dodgers cannot be seen as unrightfully infringing the dignity and value of an individual."

Justice Lee Kang-kook was the one dissenting voice. He opposed the ruling on grounds that "since it is the nation's obligation to guarantee freedom of conscience, one of the basic rights of the people, the government should show a greater spirit of tolerance." Other five justices who agreed to the ruling also said in a complementary opinion that it was necessary to introduce an alternative to military service. Under South Korean all young men must sign up for a 26-month active military service. No alternative civilian service exists, except for those exempt on health grounds.

Upon hearing the Court's decision Choi Myung-jin said that he "would accept the ruling by the Supreme Court and will wait for the ruling by the Constitutional Court."

Called up in November 2001, the young man refused to enlist and was convicted in two lower courts of evading his military service without sufficient reasons.  He appealed to the Supreme Court last April. The final word now belongs to the Constitutional Court which is deliberating on the petition, submitted by Seoul Southern District Court in January 2002, on whether article 88 of the Military Service Law is unconstitutional.

Conscientious objection has been in the limelight for some time in South Korea, especially in cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses. Some courts have hitherto agreed to their demand that they be exempt from military service on grounds of freedom of conscience. Such decisions have however led to a backlash.

Last May, Seoul District Court acquitted three Jehovah's Witnesses ruling that the Constitution protects freedom of conscience. Yet, in March the 12th Division of Military Police Court in Kangwon-do had sentenced 22-year old Hee Jai Lim, 22, a theology student, to 18 months in jail albeit not the mandatory three-year sentence.  The young man is a Seventh-day Adventist from Dong Gu Neung Church in Guri City who refused military training after being enlisted on August 18, 2002. Commenting on his sentence, Lim said: "I feel happy even though I was sentenced because God has used me to spread the gospel in the spiritual desert that is the military base. God sowed the seeds of the gospel."

At present, both civilian and military courts deal with conscientious objection cases and on average impose 18-month sentences. About 30 non-governmental organizations working for human rights in South Korea are campaigning for the release of conscientious objectors who have been sentenced for more than 18 months. These groups are calling for equality in sentencing in both civilian and military courts.

Every year about 500 young men, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, are arrested for refusing the draft. (MR)

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