Sang-Min Lee, a South Korean Mennonite, is in prison because of his belief against serving in the military.
Militarism in South Korea: South Korea, living in constant tension with North Korea, has strictly enforced mandatory military service for all men between the ages of 18 and 35, with no alternative service option for conscientious objectors. As a result, the country has the highest CO imprisonment rate in the world. In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council reported that 92.5 percent of the world’s imprisoned COs are in South Korea.
The history of compulsory military service has so profoundly shaped Korean Christianity, says South Korean Mennonite SeongHan Kim, that serving the nation through military service is seen even as a legitimate form of evangelism. Of course, says Kim, in this way the military has also “evangelized” Korean Christianity, introducing elements of nationalism and militarism into Christian churches.
Shaem Song, Lee’s girlfriend, says that many people see protecting the country through military service as an act of peace. “Military service in South Korea, it seems to me, is a sacred duty,” wrote Song in an email.
The vast majority of South Korea’s COs are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion most Korean Christians dismiss as irrelevant or unorthodox. According to Song, many wonder why a Protestant Christian would want to participate in something that Jehovah’s Witnesses do.
Journey toward conscientious objection
Lee grew up in a Christian family with a strong military history. “Both sides [of his family] are deeply connected with Korean military society,” says Kim, a friend and mentor of Lee. The question is, asks Kim, how did the first Mennonite CO in Korea come from this background?
After secondary school, Lee studied early childhood education at a Christian university. The campus chapels were a central element of the curriculum there, but the chapel speakers tended to echo the Christian nationalism Lee had heard elsewhere. Increasingly, he was troubled by it.
In a 2013 interview with Canadian Mennonites Michael Harms and Heather Schellenberg, Lee said that his views on military service first began to change when he read an article about some Christian COs who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses. The article made him examine his assumptions about who could be a CO and what military service meant from a Christian perspective.
He tentatively shared some of his questions with fellow students. Although his classmates were sympathetic, they advised Lee to accept military service as a reality and not challenge it.
During this same period, Lee became acquainted with SeongHan Kim, a Mennonite who worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the time. Lee confided in Kim about his growing objections to military service.
Soon after, Lee began attending Kim’s home congregation of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul. The church gave Lee the language and theology to articulate his objections to military service, says Kim.
In the 2013 interview, Lee shared some of the spiritual grounding for holding to a nonviolent expression of Christian faith, recounting Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane.
“Right before Jesus was arrested by soldiers,” Lee said, “Peter tried to protect Jesus and cut off a soldier’s ear with a sword. Jesus told Peter he could have called the angels to protect him. However, he chose not to. As a Christian, this is the most powerful Scripture for me and the reason I believe in Jesus Christ.”
Although Lee had solidified his peace conviction, he struggled to know when and how to apply it to his required military service. In 2008, the Defense Ministry briefly considered allowing alternative service for COs, and Lee extended his university studies in the hopes that alternative service would be an option by the time he graduated. When the negotiations fell through, Lee grew discouraged.
After conservative Park Guen-Hye was elected president in 2013, Lee perceived that the political window of opportunity had closed for establishing alternative service, and he spoke openly about his convictions. He also started building connections with other CO networks in Korea and beyond.
Finally, in October 2013, he declared his refusal to the police to fulfill his military service. A month later, he told his parents of his decision. They had already been opposed to his convictions, but his choice to actively seek CO status was almost more than they could bear.
Lee’s status will give him a criminal record and a bad reputation in broader society for the rest of his life, a reality further complicated by his role as his parents’ only son, a position that carries significant responsibility in Korean culture. As Lee puts it, “What kind of parents in this world would like to see their child go to prison?”
Thankfully, his relationship with his parents has improved since Lee’s sentencing, and they even visited him in prison in June.
As Lee’s April trial date approached, his story circulated outside South Korean Mennonite circles. Late in 2013, Harms and Schellenberg sent Lee’s video interview to their Mennonite connections back in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The story was picked up by Canadian Mennonite and shared more broadly. In March, Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul formed a support group for Lee that included establishing an accompanying Facebook group with over 200 members.
Mennonite World Conference also publicized Lee’s case, and letters of support and prayers on Lee’s behalf came from all over the world as the trial date neared. In addition, Jae Young Lee, a member of Grace and Peace and the director of the Korea Peacebuilding Institute, sent out regular updates to international supporters leading up to and during Lee’s trial on April 30.
Grace and Peace Mennonite Church and the support committee that had formed in Seoul were committed to supporting Lee in the case of imprisonment, but there was some concern that the outpouring of international support would fade away after the trial.
Through Mennonite World Conference connections, John D. Roth, director of Goshen (Ind.) College’s Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism (ISGA), began conversations with Jenny Neme, the director of Justapaz, a Colombia Mennonite peace and human rights organization based in Bogotá, Colombia. Both Roth and Neme were interested in somehow extending support to Lee throughout his time in prison, finally deciding that a letter-writing campaign would be most effective.
One of the ISGA’s initiatives, the Bearing Witness Stories Project, is an effort to collect stories of suffering faith from around the world, but the project also raises awareness of situations of costly discipleship today, offering support when possible. In this way the Bearing Witness Stories Project seemed the perfect platform from which to organize a letter-writing campaign for Lee.
Justapaz, in turn, was founded by the Colombia Mennonite Church in 1990 surrounding issues of conscientious objection in Colombia. Although Justapaz’s scope has broadened since then, the organization continues to advocate for a clear conscientious objection option in the face of mandatory military service in Colombia.
After Lee was sentenced to 18 months in prison at his April 30 trial, the letter-writing campaign was launched, with ISGA and Justapaz promoting the campaign in their respective regions.
Lee is now in the fifth month of his prison term, and so far he has received letters from Canada, the United States, Colombia, Chile and the Netherlands. Even if no more people sign up for the campaign, Lee will receive over 70 letters from individuals and churches throughout the course of his imprisonment.
‘This story is not only his story’
The interest that Lee’s story has sparked within global Anabaptist networks testifies to its ability to capture the faith imagination of a wide variety of people. As Kim says, “This story is not only his story; it also services the discussion of Christians in other contexts. What is the meaning of peace in this current situation?”
Although Lee’s story, with all its particular nuances, is his alone, it has somehow transcended national and language differences to inspire and challenge the faith of a broad swath of people. Even more surprising is its ability to connect widely disparate members of the global Anabaptist community outside formal institutional structures.
Since entering prison, Lee has felt at peace about his decision. Jae Young Lee believes the prison term itself may actually be easier for SangMin Lee than the years of wondering and waiting that preceded it. Challenges will remain after Lee’s term is up, however, and he may have difficulty in finding work and stability given his status as a CO.
Yet his story has already made a difference for others, inspiring new conversations about conscientious objection and Christian peace conditions more broadly. Next year, for example, the Mennonite World Conference Assembly will use South Korea as one of a number of country case studies for a series of workshops on conscientious objection and global advocacy.
The mystery of Christian community continues to unfold, as Lee’s story is woven together with others around the master story of Jesus of Nazareth, who could have called on angels to defend him but chose to go to the cross instead.
To write to Sang-Min Lee: (153-600) Seoul Guro-gu, Geumcheon Post Office Mail Box 164, # 2139 South Korea Mr. Lee Sang Min.
For the letter campaign, go to www.martyrstories.org/co-letter-campaign/