Refusing to Serve in South Korea's Military Was a Crime. Not Anymore - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Refusing to Serve in South Korea's Military Was a Crime. Not Anymore

A South Korean marine in action on Nov. 1, 2018, on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea.
SourceJeon Heon-Kyun-Pool/Getty

Refusing to Serve in South Korea's Military Was a Crime. Not Anymore

By Bryan Harris


Those with moral or religious qualms about serving in the military will have options other than jail time.

By Bryan Harris

South Korea’s Supreme Court has ruled that conscientious objection is a valid reason to refuse to do military service in a landmark decision in a nation where mandatory duty has been strictly enforced for decades.

The ruling last week effectively decriminalizes those who refuse to be conscripted for the 21-month mandatory duty period if they object to the service on religious or conscientious grounds.

The decision — which builds on a constitutional court judgment in June that demanded alternative forms of service be available for objectors — has been hailed as a progressive shift in the deeply conservative nation.

“Punishing [conscientious objectors] for refusing conscription on the grounds of religious faith, in other words, freedom of conscience, is deemed an excessive constraint to an individual’s freedom of conscience … and goes against democracy that stands for tolerance of minorities,” the court said in its ruling.

Since conscription was introduced in the 1950s to serve as a buffer against the massive North Korean army … 

Nearly 20,000 South Korean men have been convicted for refusing to serve as conscientious objectors.

“Today’s was a landmark decision. It is more progressive than expected,” said Kim Jiyoon, a senior research fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, adding that it could open the door to cases of bogus conscientious objectors.

The country’s Military Service Act specifies a three-year sentence for the offense, although most serve 18 months. In recent years, however, the momentum behind the convictions began to wane. The constitutional court ruling in June is considered a turning point. It came at the conclusion of an appeal by Oh Seung-hun, who in 2013 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to do military service on the grounds he was a Jehovah’s Witness and that army duty was against his faith.


The decision bodes positively for the more than 900 similar cases before the courts in South Korea.

“Today’s ruling is a forward-looking ruling that emphasizes the value of a free democratic society and the diversity of individual convictions,” says Huh Yoon, a lawyer with the Seoul Bar Association. “Thanks to the decision, the pending cases of conscientious objectors are likely to be cleared and prosecutors are likely to become more passive about prosecuting them as well.”

Since the election of liberal President Moon Jae-in last year, many of South Korea’s institutions have tacked to the left.

Kim said the Supreme Court was attempting to burnish its progressive credentials after its involvement in a corruption saga under the previous administration.


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