Conscientious objectors fight war against war
By Eileen Cahill Staff reporter
January 11, 2002
Oh Tae-yang, a 26-year-old vegetarian pacifist who spends most of his time volunteering at a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen for the elderly, made a decision last March that will alter the course of his life. After making every effort to delay his military service, a two-year obligation for all able-bodied Korean men once they finish their education, Oh decided to refuse to join, on moral and religious grounds.
In December, when he received his conscription notice, he did not report for duty within the required five days, knowing that he faced a jail term and lifelong criminal record.
Oh, a Buddhist, is Korea's first conscientious objector outside the Jehovah's Witness faith. There are now 1,600 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison for refusing to perform military service, according to Chung Woon-young of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Korea, an organization that represents the minority religious group.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe they are following in the footsteps of the early Christians, who refused to serve in the Roman army, says Chung. Then as now, he says, conscientious objectors were asked who would defend the empire if individuals were allowed freedom of conscience. Their answer is the same as that of their predecessors: continuing to practice their faith and following the Bible's directive to love their enemies.
Raised in a Protestant home, Oh converted to Buddhism as an adult and has been involved in several peace and human rights efforts, including opposition to the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
The Buddha, Oh says, stood for nonviolence and taught that all living beings fear death. Therefore, harming or killing another person in war, or learning to use guns and other weapons of war, would violate his religious and moral beliefs.
Under Korean law, the minimum requirement is two years and two months of Army service for all men designated as healthy and physically fit. The Navy and the Air Force require somewhat longer terms.
Civilian forms of service - which may involve various desk jobs or enforcement of traffic laws - are available only to those with health problems, while those with serious disabilities are excused. No exemptions based on religious or moral convictions are granted, making the Korean system unlike that of Taiwan, where conscientious objectors can opt for civilian duties.
There are, however, special programs for certain highly qualified professionals, who are allowed to sign work contracts for several years after four weeks of combat training.
Hong Young-il, a graduate of Seoul National University with a degree in electronic engineering, qualified for such a program, but as a Jehovah's Witness, he deemed it unacceptable. In 1990, when he was 27, he was put in a military prison to await sentencing. There, he says, he was beaten, deprived of sleep and not allowed to use the bathroom. Chung, also a conscientious objector, alleges similar abuses in a military prison in 1975, where he says military police killed his friend, Lee Chun-gil.
Conditions for Hong improved upon his transfer to a civilian prison, where he was sent after a three-minute trial in which a judge handed down the mandatory two-year sentence. However, Hong said, he was not allowed to read religious magazines in prison or attend religious services, which are available to other prisoners.
Hong's mother was heartbroken over her son's decision because he had such a "bright future," and his criminal record proved a major obstacle to his career. Five years after his release, he was finally able to obtain employment in his field, and his mother - although not a Jehovah's Witness herself - now understands how important his beliefs are to him.
Oh has faced attacks from strangers on the Internet who question his sincerity and call him a "draft dodger," but those around him are supportive. His two sisters strongly support his decision, and one is producing a documentary film about conscientious objectors in Korea.
Oh emphasizes that not all Buddhists interpret the Buddha's teachings as a prohibition on war, and he is not condemning the choice of other Buddhists to serve in the military. He believes Korea should make military service optional, as it is in many other countries such as Britain, the United States, France and Israel.
"It's a human rights issue," he says, adding that Korea is being watched internationally and that many nongovernmental organizations support his struggle, including People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Minbyun, Sarangbang and Solidarity for Peace and Human Rights.
In October, Amnesty International sent a delegation to Korea to meet with some of these groups, as well as government representatives, to discuss several pressing human rights issues. In a statement, the organization urged the Korean government to release all conscientious objectors, calling them "prisoners of conscience," meaning they are persecuted for their beliefs.
The group said in the statement, "By detaining them, the government denies them the right of freedom of conscience, faith and expression as enshrined under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, to which the Korean government is a state party. ... the Korean government should consider a civilian alternative which is not punitive, and which is completely civilian in nature for conscientious objectors."
The Ministry of Defense sees the matter differently. In an official statement, it classed military service as a civic duty on a par with paying taxes, asserting that it is "not a matter of choice subject to an individual's conscience or religious beliefs." The ministry said refusal to serve in the military for religious reasons is "an act of abandoning responsibility for national security," and that introducing an alternative would be "tantamount to authorizing anti-national and anti-social activities."
Despite the opposition from officials, Chung says there have been positive developments in this area. Last year, the issue gained unprecedented media attention and public sympathy for conscientious objectors in Korea. Legislation was proposed that would have allowed them to perform an alternative civilian service, but the move was unsuccessful, in part because of opposition from a Christian group that disagrees with the Jehovah's Witnesses' pacifist stance. A new bill is currently under review, Chung says, and is supported by major religious groups, legislators from several parties, and many legal experts.
Cases are no longer tried in military courts, Chung adds, meaning conscientious objectors do not have to go to military prisons, and civilian court judges can impose a "lenient" sentence of a year and a half, instead of the mandatory three-year sentence required by a military court, where offenders have no chance of parole before two years and three months. It remains to be seen whether parole will be granted in the new cases, he says.
Oh describes his chances of avoiding jail as "slim," but says he hopes his case will pave the way for conscientious objectors' rights in the future.
When asked to comment on accusations of disloyalty to their country, Chung and Hong say they frequently face such attitudes. But, Chung says, their faith teaches that all humans are part of the same family, and contends that this faith would hold even in the event of a foreign invasion.
"We're all descendants of Adam and Eve," Chung says, adding that 10 million South Koreans have relatives in the North. He says visiting representatives of Amnesty International expressed great surprise that Jehovah's Witnesses were the country's only conscientious objectors.
"When you think about that," he asks, "who is doing the right thing, people who object to military service, or people who don't?"
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