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Conscientious objectors of military service in South Korea are to have an option

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Korean men who refuse to enlist the mandatory military service due to religious and personal beliefs will be able to apply for substitutive service system under a new implementation law that will be effective in January 2009. This is a milestone for many human rights organisations and conscientious objectors.

(Bangkok, 2 November 2007)  The Ministry of Defense of South Korea announced on 18 September that “conscientious objectors”, men who refuse to enlist in the mandatory military service due to religious and personal beliefs, will be able to apply for a substitutive service system under new implementation law that will be effective in January 2009.

The government of South Korea has been punishing the conscientious objectors under the Military Service Act of 2003 with penalty of imprisonment for a maximum of three years. In South Korea, this has resulted in social discrimination and the stigma of a criminal record. They are also excluded from employment in government and public related organisations.

Ministry of Defense formalised the legislation by stating that conscientious objectors, instead of entering the military conscription system, can have the alternative choice of serving 36-months in public service at mental hospitals, tuberculosis clinics and national rehabilitation centers. The regular military service is finished after 18-months period.

The demand from the international and civil society as well as the increasing number of conscientious objectors over the years was taken into an account to implement the alternative procedures within military conscription system.  In November 2006, Human Rights Committee in its Concluding Observations (CCPR/C/KOR/CO/3 para. 17) made recommendations to “take all necessary measures to recognize the right of conscientious objectors to be exempted from military service”. According to Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (KSCO), there are 750 conscientious objectors annually and as of this October, there are 764 conscientious objectors who are in prison.

Human rights organisations have welcomed the decision but noted, however,  that 36 months of alternative service are too long, compared to the regular military service. This suggests a form of  discrimination by the government towards the beliefs of the conscientious objectors. They also urged the government to take an action on conscientious objectors who are presently in prison and to consider remission or exemption for them.