The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a lower court’s ruling against a Jehovah’s Witness, bringing an end to months-long legal disputes over the refusal of mandatory military service by “conscientious objectors” due to their religious beliefs.
The ruling against the 25-year-old, identified by the surname Choi, will likely serve as the guidelines for lower courts in dealing with around 300 other similar cases. As some judges recently made conflicting rulings on the conscientious objection in past months, district courts earlier said they would await the ruling by the Supreme Court to make a decision on the thorny matter.
“Individual freedom of conscience can’t be more important than accepting calls of duty for the defense of their own country,” the 13-member Supreme Court panel said in its ruling. “Choi violated the military draft law by refusing to receive military training.”
The court said seeking freedom of conscience as a member of society can only be admitted when the person follows the rules that others follow. All Korean men have their duty to defend this nation, but he refused to fulfill the obligation, it added.
Choi appealed to the Supreme Court in April after being sentenced to 18 months in prison by a district court and an appellate court on charges of refusing to comply with summons for conscription in November 2001.
With the ruling, controversy surrounding the draft dodgers is expected to subside, but critics argue the court decision will be challenged in the near future as more and more people are set to choose jail over the military to uphold their religious beliefs. The Constitutional Court is reviewing the matter to decide whether their refusal to serve in the military is in violation of the Constitution.
Choi said he respects the ruling by the Supreme Court, but will await the final decision by the Constitutional Court.
The issue made headlines when judge Lee Chong-yul of the Seoul Southern District Court cleared three Jehovah’s Witnesses of criminal charges on May 21, recognizing conscientious objection for the first time. Lee said their refusal to serve in the military was based on freedom of conscience ensured in the Constitution.
South Korea maintains a strict conscription system due to its military rivalry with North Korea. Critics argue if the government admits conscientious objection, it will be misused by many young people to dodge their military duties and will wreak havoc on the conscription system. Human rights groups and religious leaders have called for more a generous approach toward conscientious objectors.
On Tuesday, some 100 leaders from the country’s four largest religions held a news conference in Seoul, calling on the court to recognize the refusal of military service based on religious beliefs. They also asked the government to set up alternative systems for conscientious objectors to serve in the military.
Lee Yong-seok, a representative of World Without War, a group composed of people refusing to serve military duties on religious grounds, said the Supreme Court’s ruling against them was widely expected, but saw a positive sign in the past several months.
“In the past, courts didn’t take this issue seriously, thinking of us as just law-violators,” said Lee, 25, who plans to go to jail voluntarily to keep his religious beliefs. “Now, there is a wide consensus among people and legal experts that the government should change its attitude and establish alternative systems to help people serve military duties without learning how to kill people.”
Lee said the group will hold a press conference in Seoul today to announce its official stance on the court’s ruling.
The Korea Veterans Association welcomed the ruling against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The association said in a statement that they hope the case will be an opportunity for South Korean people to be more aware of the importance of national defense.
Records show more than 10,000 South Korean males have been jailed for refusing to serve their military duties. The number has steadily risen over the past few years from 683 in 2000 to 804 in 2001 and 734 in 2002. As of February this year, about 500 people are facing charges due to their refusal.