South Korean army soldiers march during a ceremony at Seongnam Military Airbase. The country long jailed more conscientious objectors than any other nation in the world.
Seoul CNN  — 

The South Korean Supreme Court ruled in favor of conscientious objectors Thursday, ending the country’s decades-long position as the world’s leading jailer of those who refuse to join the armed forces.

“Refusing to enter the military due to a religious faith which forbids bearing arms is considered a justified reason to refuse duty,” the court said in its ruling. “Therefore it cannot be criminally punished.”

In overturning a ruling by a lower court to sentence a conscientious objector to 18 months in prison, it said jailing him “excessively limited his freedom of conscience” and threatened the essential protections of the country’s constitution. The case has now been returned to the Changwon District Court.

In a dissenting opinion, a minority of judges said the ruling interfered with an issue of national policy “which should be solved via adoption of alternative service law” decided by the legislature.

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes on the back of a decades-long fight by conscientious objectors, many of them Jehova’s Witnesses, to push back against the country’s stringent military service law, under which all men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to perform at least 21 months of military service.

“We are happy to hear that the Supreme Court of South Korea has made a historic decision to recognize the rights of conscientious objectors,” said Paul Gillies, international spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses at their world headquarters in New York.

“For the last 65 years, over 19,300 Jehovah’s Witnesses (in South Korea) have been imprisoned for standing firm for their Christian beliefs. This ruling is a huge step forward in ending this policy of imprisoning our fellow believers for conscientious objection.”

However, the Thursday ruling will not affect those already in prison, and only applies to the cases considered by the court and those in future.

Long term policy

South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea. Despite massively reduced tensions on the peninsula, many people in the country are still broadly supportive of conscription, and conscientious objectors can face stigma and discrimination well beyond their jail terms.

Military service requirements have also derailed the careers of many of the country’s biggest sports stars and K-Pop artists, with hugely popular boy band Big Bang having to go on hiatus so its members could perform their military service.

Earlier this year, a constitutional court ruled the government must provide alternative civilian roles for those who decline to take up arms, clearing the way for most objectors to avoid jail, while in August, the Supreme Court began hearings into the matter for the first time in 14 years, with 900 cases before lower courts currently on hold.

Conservatives reacted angrily to that ruling, with the right-wing Liberty Korea Party putting forward a bill to force objectors to perform 44 months – double the usual length – of alternative service, including mine sweeping and other dangerous activities.

“This is a form of retaliatory punishment against conscientious objectors that is anachronistic and in violation of human rights,” South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper said in an editorial.

The Yang family's sons refuse to report for compulsory military service because of their religious beliefs. Yang Won-wuk (left) served more than a year in prison. Yang Won-suk (right) is appealing his sentence.
Why they'd choose prison over military service
03:33 - Source: CNN

Last ones imprisoned

While some conscientious objectors avoid military service on pacifist or other moral grounds, the majority of those jailed in recent decades have been Jehova’s Witnesses.

The Christian minority – who believe they are obliged to abstain from war – counts about 100,000 worshipers in South Korea. Male Witnesses and their parents have long grown up in the shadow of a likely jail term for refusing service, and the limitations of future career prospects after they are released.

Lee Haw-sook told CNN in August that she never pressured her son, Lee Gyo-won, to become an objector, and feared him going to prison.

“I’m proud of my son that he chose to follow his faith out of his own free will,” she said. “I’m grateful towards him that he followed my faith.”

Gyo-won, 22, is one of hundreds of Witnesses currently in prison for refusing conscription orders. In a letter from prison after the constitutional court ruling, he said he hoped he would “be among the last ones to experience prison life, a prison life that was given to me due to my love of others and, most importantly, my love of God and his principles.”

James Griffiths reported and wrote from Hong Kong. Jake Kwon reported from Seoul, South Korea.