South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled Nov. 1 that men in the country can reject mandatory military service on conscientious or religious grounds without punishment.
The Associated Press reported the ruling will affect the cases of more than 930 COs on trial. Most of the hundreds of men who are imprisoned annually for refusing to serve in the military are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Forcing a military duty . . . with criminal punishment or other punitive measures is an excessive restraint of freedom of conscience,” wrote the majority in its opinion. “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 many conservatives are likely to criticize the ruling for failing to adequately consider the threat posed by North Korea.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mennonites hailed the ruling as progress for individual rights and freedom to act on one’s beliefs.
SangMin Lee is believed to be the only Korean Mennonite to choose jail over military service. A member of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul, he was released July 30, 2015.
“I am glad many other people see the change in conscientious objector status in South Korea,” said Bock Ki Kim, a Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker planting a Mennonite church in Seoul and helping at Korea Anabaptist Center.
He said the center hosted a peace seminar Oct. 20 on CO alternative service. At the event, Swiss Mennonites Bruno and Heidi Sägesser spoke about the history of alternative service in their country. Since his release from prison for refusing military service, Bruno Sägesser has worked to make it easier for younger generations.
Roughly 20,000 men have gone to prison for refusing to serve in the military since the Korean War, which ran from 1950 to 1953. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled it was illegal to reject military service because tension with North Korea made the draft necessary.
In June, the Constitutional Court ruled the government must provide alternative service options for COs by 2019. The Defense Ministry has not yet released such details. In 2007 the ministry considered allowing COs to work in special hospitals.