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Alternatives to service

June 30,2018
The Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that it was acceptable to criminally punish conscientious objectors to the country’s mandatory military service, but it also ordered the government to devise alternatives for conscripts to serve society in ways that respect their religion and faith.

If such an amendment is made, conscientious objectors could avoid imprisonment by participating in community service.

Under the current law, every able-bodied man between 18 and 35 must complete at least two years of military service, the norm in a country that is still technically at war with North Korea. Refusal to comply can be punishable by 18 months in prison. Since 1950, about 19,000 conscientious objectors, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, have been jailed.

In 2004, the Constitutional Court advised amending the law, but the legislature did not budge. “The issue should not be deferred any longer,” the court said. Over the years, the government, lawmakers and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea have engaged in endless debate over the issue, and lower courts have delivered mixed rulings.

Since 2004, 80 cases have gone in favor of defendants in lower or appellate courts, only to be overturned by the top court. The issue has been tossed around like a hot potato because of the social and political sensitivity surrounding military service.

The debate remains heated, but the government and legislature must pay heed to the Constitutional Court’s call. It is important to ensure that the new alternatives are not abused to evade conscription. The legislature could make conditions trickier so that young people would rather serve in the military than opt for alternatives. One bill in the National Assembly proposes a longer period of service at welfare centers that includes hard work.

Soldiers who have faithfully and willingly complied with the nation’s call must not feel cheated. After all, our national defense is on the line, and there can be no mistakes or compromises.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 29, Page 30