By Lee Suh-yoon
A court has recognized personal pacifist beliefs as a valid reason for rejecting follow-up mandatory military service for the first time in Korea.
Previous recognition was given to firmly held religious beliefs such as those of Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Suwon District Court said Tuesday that it had ruled in favor of a 28-year-old conscientious objector who had been indicted 14 times over five years for refusing to participate in mandatory exercises with the reserve forces.
The court said it found the man's account of his pacifist beliefs to be specific and credible. It noted that the man had made significant individual sacrifices ― subjecting himself to a long court battle and social isolation ― to defend these beliefs.
"He faced a considerable amount of disadvantages for refusing reserve forces training, such as years of investigations and court hearings, pain from social disapproval, economic loss due to difficulty in getting a stable job, and the risk of criminal penalties," the court's ruling read. "For the accused, refusing to participate in the training was based on a desperate and specific conscientious belief that not doing so would destroy his existential value as a person."
According to court documents, the man acquired a strong aversion to violence while growing up with an abusive father, who attacked his mother frequently. Later, after watching clips of civilian deaths caused by the U.S. military and videos of other killings through various media channels, he came to believe that war was never a justifiable course of action.
He tried to refuse the 18-month mandatory military service, but was persuaded by his mother and relatives to do so to avoid criminal punishment. But he regretted the decision once at boot camp, as it became clear he would never be able to shoot another person even in war. He applied and was accepted to handle maintenance tasks that did not require combat training.
After he finished his service in February 2013, he was called in repeatedly to participate in reserve forces training, which is also mandatory for eight years after finishing the 18 months conscription. He refused to take part ― at great cost. The legal battle since made it impossible for him to find a stable full-time job, making him rely on short-term work as a day laborer, according to court documents.
The ruling follows a recent thaw in the state's punitive stance toward conscientious objectors. A landmark Supreme Court ruling last November said punishing conscientious objectors was an excessive restriction of their liberty as they were not provided with any alternatives. The defense ministry said it would offer alternative duty ― 36 months of cooking and other chores at correctional facilities ― for conscientious objectors by 2020.
Following the top court ruling, lower courts have acquitted around 100 conscientious objectors. Dozens more who were already behind bars have been released on parole. But in all these cases, they were Jehovah's Witnesses or members of other pacifist religious groups.