+ A

Alternative service draws scorn from conscripts

July 06,2018
In a country where conscription remains the norm, controversy is raging over proposed alternatives for conscientious objectors.

On June 28, the Constitutional Court ruled that criminal punishment for eligible men who refuse service was constitutional, but it also ordered alternatives for conscientious objectors.

Under the current law, every able-bodied man in Korea must complete at least two years of military service. 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.

The government is now considering options for alternative service. The Ministry of National Defense has proposed that the alternative be tougher than serving in the military to dissuade those but the most faithful.

The public has not been shy about weighing in on the issue, even at the risk of sounding contemptuous of conscientious objectors. Among the most fervent critics of alternative service are men studying for the civil service exam and job seekers. They have been especially vocal on forums and university message boards.

On DC Inside, a popular online forum, there were over 30 posts regarding alternative service on Wednesday. One post argued that conscientious objectors should be forced to serve in remote areas far from their homes. “Staying close to home will allow them to commute back and forth,” the post read, “and give them an upper hand in preparing for civil service exams.”

“Alternative service should be three times longer than regular military service,” another post read, “and should be regarded as less prestigious by employers than regular service.”

Kwak Dae-gyeong, a professor of police administration at Dongguk University, said conscription was necessary in a country that remains technically at war with North Korea.

“Despite the recent peaceful mood between South and North Korea, authorities should take into account that Korea is still the only divided country in the world,” he said. “The people will only accept alternative service for those who are able to verify that their objection to military service is truthfully based on moral and religious grounds.”

Na Seung-chul, former chairman of the Seoul Bar Association and a former legal counsel to Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung, said alternative service could become a form of discrimination if it is perceived as easier than military service and only available to conscientious objectors.

“As long as alternative service exists, controversy over discrimination is bound to continue,” he said.

The vitriol has also fanned sexist views about military service. “Now that there is alternative service, women must be forced to serve,” one post read.

“A certain cohort of men who have failed to find employment and feel unsatisfied are using women as scapegoats and inciting hatred,” said Jo Dong-gi, a sociology professor at Dongguk University. “Those who use hateful language in their comments about forcing women to perform alternative service appear to be part of this group.”

For now, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have decided not to release an official statement on the matter.

“Our faithful are free to decide based on their conscience whether to fulfill military service or not,” a spokesperson for the church told the JoongAng Ilbo. “It is inappropriate for the church to provide a public statement on the matter for this reason.”

The church would also not comment on revisions to the military service law, the spokesperson said.

In an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Monday, a source from the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that if an alternative to military service were implemented, most conscientious objectors would be able to accept it, an indication that the church opposes any form of military training being incorporated into alternative service.

BY CHOI SEON-UK, KIM YEONG-MIN [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]