01 November 2018

South Korea supreme court overturns ruling on conscientious objection

Supreme Court rules that religious and conscientious beliefs are to be considered 'valid' reasons for refusing the military service mandate.

Overturning a 14-year old ruling in a 9-4 vote, the full bench led by Chief Justice Kim Meong-su delivered the decision and ordered an appellate court to retry the case of Oh Seung-hun, essentially meaning the appellant should be cleared of the conviction.

Jehovah's Witness

The new ruling potentially allows for 227 other similar cases pending at the top court and some 930 conscientious objectors currently on trial in Korea to avoid criminal convictions for disobeying the mandate and to replace their duties with alternative services. The court ruled, punishing conscientious objectors ‘for refusing the conscription on grounds of religious faith, in others 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.’ Mr Oh has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to do his military duty, which applies to all able-bodied men in the country. He argued as a Jehovah's Witnesses believer serving in the Army is against his religious faith.

Alternative service proposals

The current Military Service Act stipulates that objectors face up to three years in prison. Since the 1950s, about 19,000 conscientious objectors have been arrested and served time, mostly 18 months in jail. The ruling also follows the Constitutional Court's June 28 ruling that recognized for the first time the need for alternative service for conscientious objectors. Public hearings have been held on the issue since the latest Constitutional Court's ruling, with experts and lawmakers leaning toward the idea of working at public institutions, such as state prisons or fire stations, for twice the length of the term.