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Alternative to military is 3 years’ work at prisons

Dec 29,2018
The Ministry of National Defense announced Friday that it will amend the Military Service Act to enable conscientious objectors to compulsory military service to work in prisons for three years.

This is nearly twice as long as they would have served in the military.

On June 28, the Constitutional Court ruled that it is unconstitutional not to provide an option for alternative service for conscientious objectors. It ordered an amendment to the current conscription law by Dec. 31, 2019, that would enable draftees who object to military duties due to religious reasons or their faith to perform some kind of civilian service instead.

All able-bodied Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to spend 21 to 24 months in the military, with the length of service depending on whether they serve in the Army, Navy or Air Force. However, the Moon Jae-in administration is seeking to shorten the term of military service by 2022. This could bring the service term for the Army to 18 months from the current 21 months.

Draftees serving at correctional facilities would be expected to cook, make deliveries and do other necessary manual labor and would live on the premises. Their tasks are expected to be more demanding than regular military service.

The longer duration of service - 36 months - was decided to help prevent the exploitation of the alternative service option.

The period is similar to other draftees who serve other types of alternative service, such as doctors and other highly qualified professionals who work in public service. The term can be reduced through presidential or cabinet approval.

The ministry said that following the Constitutional Court decision, it conducted two rounds of reviews, including public hearings, consulting with experts and taking opinion polls.

Other forms of alternative service besides serving at correctional facilities may also be introduced in the future once the system is established, such as firefighting or welfare service.

“The Defense Ministry is making strict plans to maintain fairness and to prevent exploitation to evade military conscription,” said Lee Nam-woo, a Defense Ministry official in charge of the personnel welfare office, at a press briefing in Seoul Friday. “We are working toward providing a reasonable form of alternative service that balances the obligation to military service as well as the freedom of conscience while abiding by the principles of respecting international norms to the utmost without compromising our defense posture.”

On Nov. 1, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court acquitted a man who refused to serve in the military because of his religious beliefs, overturning a lower court ruling that sentenced the Jehovah’s Witness to 18 months in prison.

The Military Service Act calls for up to three years in prison for those who refuse to serve without “justifiable” reasons.

Last month, the top court for the first time accepted conscientious or religious beliefs as a justifiable reason to avoid military service.

The bill enabling alternative service is expected to be submitted to the National Assembly early next year.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]