SEOUL: South Korea’s supreme court ruled that moral and religious beliefs are valid reasons to refuse the country’s mandatory military service, in a case that has implications for hundreds of conscientious objectors.
Some 65 years after the end of the Korean War, nearly every able-bodied South Korean male between the ages of 18 and 35 must still complete around two years of military service.
Anyone refusing the call-up has usually ended up in prison for 18 months, and more than 19,000 conscientious objectors have been jailed since 1950, most of them Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a conscientious objector on Thursday, months after a landmark constitutional court ruling that authorities had to provide an alternative to joining the military.
At the centre of Thursday’s case is Jehovah’s Witness Oh Seung-hun, who was called up in 2013 but refused, was found guilty, and lost an initial appeal to the high court.
“It is the majority opinion of the supreme court that conscientious objection is… a valid reason (to refuse conscription),” said Supreme Court chief justice Kim Myeong-su.
Punishing conscientious objectors “for refusing conscription on grounds of religious faith, in other words, freedom of conscience, is deemed an excessive constraint to an individual’s freedom of conscience”, he added.
The decision, by a majority of nine votes to four, overturned a previous Supreme Court ruling 14 years ago.