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South Korea: Alternative to military service is new punishment for conscientious objectors

Conscientious objectors in South Korea will continue to be punished and stigmatised for refusing military service under a new alternative service law that was adopted today by the country’s parliament, said Amnesty International.

Under the new law, those refusing military service on religious or other grounds will be required to work in a jail or other correctional facility for three years. Previously, they would have been jailed for 18 months.

Landmark rulings by the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court in 2018 in effect recognised the right to conscientious objection in the country.

Amnesty International’s East Asia Researcher, Arnold Fang, said:

“South Korean conscientious objectors were promised a genuine alternative service. Instead they are confronted with little more than an alternative punishment.

“Confining people to work in a prison – and for almost twice as long as the typical military service – does not respect their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

“South Korea’s recognition of conscientious objection was a positive step, but this law falls way short of expectations. The service should be wholly under the control of a civilian body, separate from the military authorities.”

Applications for an alternative service plan will be assessed by a committee under the Military Manpower Administration, which is part of the Ministry of National Defense.

At 36 months’ duration, the new law makes South Korea’s alternative service the longest in the world.

Arnold Fang added:

“This tokenistic move does too little to eliminate the human rights violations conscientious objectors are suffering, and in effect continues to treat them as criminals.

“It will also not reduce the stigmatisation they face in South Korea. Conscientious objectors will continue to be seen as having been sent to jail, and their ability to access employment afterwards will most likely still be compromised.

“We urge the South Korean government to treat this adopted plan as no more than an interim measure. Ultimately, conscientious objectors must be provided with alternative service options that are clearly non-punitive, entirely independent from the military and compatible with their reasons for objecting to military service.”


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