On Thursday, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that men can legally reject mandatory military service on conscientious or religious grounds without punishment. This decision comes after years of South Korean law that required able-bodied men to serve at least two years in the nation’s military. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that rejecting the required military service on the basis of religious faith was illegal, and it stayed that way up until the decision reached on Thursday. South Korea has long justified the required service due to the looming presence of conflict with an aggressive North Korea.
The decision is great news for over 900 conscientious objectors currently on trial, most of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Hundreds of South Korean men are imprisoned every year for refusal of military service. The case in question initially saw a conscientious objector sentenced to prison for 18 months by a lower court, which the Supreme Court subsequently struck down. Oh Seung-hun, the conscientious objector in the case, told reporters that he also hopes for “positive rulings” on the 930 pending cases for his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Forcing a military duty…with criminal punishment or other punitive measures is an excessive restraint of freedom of conscience,” the majority opinion read. “Free democracy can have its legitimacy when it tolerates and embraces minorities though it is run by the principle of majority rule.” The Associated Press reported that the South Korean office of Jehovah’s Witnesses hailed the ruling as a “historic verdict that will be remembered for a long time for showing the matureness of the country’s human rights awareness.”
According to the Associated Press, South Korea has sent about 19,350 Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison for refusing to serve in the military since the Korean War, with the average time spent behind bars being around 18 months. Momentum had been building to turn these numbers around and move into a new direction. In June, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government must provide an alternative social service for conscientious objectors by 2019. Many disagreed with the call for such a measure because plenty of South Koreans believe that the North Korean nuclear threat remains unchanged.
Thus, conservatives in South Korea are also finding Thursday’s decision troubling, believing that the nation is continuing to undermine the threat that North Korea poses. As for the alternative service that Jehovah’s Witnesses and other conscientious objectors could perform, South Korea’s Defence Ministry has yet to come up with anything definitive. One option that has been considered is allowing conscientious objectors to work in special hospitals and care for people with disabilities or dementia, according to the Associated Press.
Despite the negative reactions, there are still many who see the court’s decision as an additional step toward calming the waters between the two Koreas. A day after the court’s decision, both Koreas agreed to send a letter to the International Olympic Committee indicating that they want to be considered for co-hosting the 2032 Olympic Games, according to Reuters. This is a tremendous step forward in diplomacy for the two nations, and going forward, there is potential for further advancement in ensuring North Korea poses no threat to the rest of the world from a nuclear standpoint. Increasing diplomacy and avoiding conflict is the best way to go about handling the North Korean situation, and South Korea appears to be on the right track.