Another South Korean superlative: Most draft dodgers in prison

South Korea's military draft makes no exemptions for conscientious objectors who face prison for refusing to serve. The majority of those imprisoned are Jehovah's Witnesses.

Lee Jin-man/AP
Kim Dong-hyun, a 25-year-old conscientious objector who was sentenced to 18 months in jail, speaks in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 23, 2013. 'Right now, I only have two choices: military or prison. Of the two, I think prison is the more peaceful choice,' Kim said. 'At least in prison I don’t have to train to kill.'

Kim Ji-gwan has a succinct explanation for why he, his father, and two brothers all chose to go to jail rather than be drafted into the South Korean armed forces.

“It is very simple,” says Mr. Kim, chatting in a coffee shop in the city’s posh Kangnam district. “Jesus commanded all his followers to love your neighbor.”

In the past, the US and many other countries accepted religious beliefs as grounds for opting out of military service. Not so South Korea, where men still serve a minimum of 21 months in the military.

The UN Human Rights Council reports that 669 of 723 conscientious objectors in jail worldwide as of last November are Korean. And almost all of these prisoners are Jehovah’s Witnesses, an evangelical Christian sect whose members refuse to serve because, they say, the Bible teaches people to "love one another." Since the Korean War ended in 1953, an astonishing 17,549 Jehovah’s Witnesses have gone to jail in South Korea for their beliefs.

South Korea allows some draftees with minor disabilities or special skills to leave military service after completing one month’s basic training. Jehovah’s Witnesses like Mr. Kim and his family would refuse even this option if available to them. 

Efforts to change the law so that conscientious objectors can choose alternative service have all failed. And, while public opinion is shifting towards acceptance of this alternative, in a country with 639,000 troops confronting nearly twice as many North Koreans under arms, there may be limited sympathy for conscientious objectors.

Outlier among Christians

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ stance puts its 100,000 followers at odds with Korean Catholics and Protestants who make up about 30 percent of the country’s 50 million people and whose young members routinely serve in the military.  

As long as South Korea’s government refuses alternative service, Jehovah’s Witnesses say they have no choice but to go to jail. At the same time, members deliberately avoid radical politics and show no sympathy with nuclear-armed North Korea

In a statement, the church said it isn’t trying to make a political point or to obstruct others who serve in the military. “We obey the law, pay our taxes, and cooperate with the government’s efforts to provide for the public welfare.”

Korean courts typically sentence objectors to 18 months in jail, reducible to a year and two or three months for good behavior. For many years, objectors have called for a law providing for alternative service but to no avail.

It was in hopes of passage of such a law that Kim Ji-gwan fought off charges of draft evasion until a court sentenced him in November 2008 to 18 months in prison. He was released for good behavior, he says, “one year, two months, and two days” later. His term overlapped with that of his elder brother and followed a similar sentence served by his oldest brother.

Family ordeal

Their father, he says, suffered more. He was jailed three times for a total of four years under the rule that those refusing military service remain eligible for the draft upon release if sentenced to less than 18 months. Judges in the past would often impose lesser sentences knowing that objectors would face another summons, and another conviction.   

The father, Kim Se-jung, looks on the family ordeal with distinctly mixed feelings. “As a father, I felt pain because they are imprisoned,” he says. “At the same time, we sense that they follow their inner conscience. I think it is a proud decision.”

After getting out of prison, Korean objectors face another problem: As convicted felons, they struggle to find jobs. Kim Ji-gwan now runs his own marketing firm while his father supervises students at a college cram school. 

Even if South Korea went to war with North Korea, as in the early 1950s, Kim vows never to take up arms. “I want to try to protect my family,” he says without hesitation, “but that does not mean willfully killing others.” And what if his survival and that of his family were at stake? “I will ask God’s help,” he says.

"Incomprehensible" belief

Kim pins his hopes for draft-eligible church members on what he sees as changing public opinion. “Many Koreans are in favor of conscientious objectors,” he says, citing a Gallup Korea poll showing that 68 percent of 1,211 respondents favored alternative service for objectors. However, 76 percent said conscientious objection was “incomprehensible” while only 21 percent found it “understandable.”

The defense ministry, moreover, has abandoned a proposal for amending the law to let objectors begin alternative service after military training. A defense official points to the threat from North Korea and questions whether Jehovah’s Witnesses deserve draft exemptions. “Are religious objectors different from those with personal or political convictions or reasons?” he asks.

Seok Jim-dong, another Jehovah’s Witness who served time in prison for refusing to join the military, is doubtful that the Korean government will change the law on objectors. “The mood is peaceful but nothing has yet changed,” he says.

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