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Alternative service won’t be easy

July 03,2018
After the Constitutional Court ruled that Korean men should be given the freedom to choose an alternative to the mandatory military service, the Ministry of National Defense said Friday that, whatever these alternative services are, it will be difficult to dissuade dishonest applicants.

“We will ensure that the alternative services are more difficult than the military service so an applicant will be discouraged from choosing to apply for the alternative service unless out of a conscientious choice,” said a senior-ranking official of the Defense Ministry in a press briefing Friday at the ministry’s headquarters in Yongsan District, central Seoul.

The ministry said it will come up with detailed plans to what exactly the alternative services will look like within this year. “We will refer to international examples of alternative service,” the official said. “And hold public hearings to come up with a plan that is socially acceptable and beneficial.”

South Korean men between ages 18 and 29 are required to spend 21 to 24 months in the military. The Constitutional Court of Korea ruled Thursday that Article 5 of the Military Service Act is unconstitutional for failing to offer the option of alternative service to the mandatory military service, which the court said was “a violation of the freedom of conscience” of the Constitution. “All the categories of military service outlined [in Article 5 of the Military Service Act] only speak of service that entails military training, and therefore violates the principle of proportionality,” the court said in its ruling Thursday. “It also violates the freedom of conscience.”

The court asked the central government and National Assembly to revise the Military Service Act to include the option of alternative services by the end of next year. It did not specify how one applicant would be found eligible for alternative service.

“From 2004, when the Constitutional Court opened the way for people to be drafted for supplementary services depending on ‘the supply and demand conditions of the armed forces,’ the court has asked the legislative to come up with a measure to offer an alternative service option that protects the freedom of conscience of the draftees,” the court said. “But there has been no progress on this matter for 14 years. The country cannot delay this matter anymore and has a duty to establish the option of alternative services to protect the basic rights of citizens.”

Depending on the supply and demand conditions of the armed forces, some men may be placed in supplementary services which include working in local government offices, social work or in public health in case they have a medical license.

But men who refuse to serve in the military “without justifiable grounds” can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Article 88 of the Military Service Act states, “Any person who has received a notice of enlistment for active duty service or a notice of call and fails to enlist in the military or to comply with the call, even after the expiration of the following report period from the date of enlistment or call without justifiable grounds, shall be punished by imprisonment with labor for not more than three years.”

The court said it is still constitutional to punish those who refuse to serve in the military “without justifiable grounds.”

Some experts welcomed the ruling as a sign of changing attitudes of the country on the military conscription system. “The significance lies in the fact that the Constitutional Court differentiated those who criminally avoid conscription and those who have a conscientious reason to make a different choice,” Oh Doo-jin, a lawyer who has, for 11 years, been defending cases of those who refused military conscription, told the JoongAng Ilbo Thursday. “The fact that the Constitutional Court appealed strongly to the need to offer the option of alternative services for freedom of conscience reflects the society’s maturing protection of human rights of citizens.”

BY HYUN IL-HOON, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]