Wednesday, December 31, 2008

15 May 2009: International Conscientious Objection Day - Focus on South Korea

15 May 2009: International Conscientious Objection Day - Focus on South Korea


Since the 1980s, 15 May is celebrated as International Conscientious
Objectors' Day [1]. Originally coordinated by the International Conscientious Objectors' Meeting (ICOM), War Resisters' International stepped in to coordinate and promote International Conscientious Objectors' Day since ICOM ceased to meet ever since ICOM 1995 in Chad. As part of WRI's programme on The Right to Refuse to Kill [2], War Resisters' International helped to established a tradition of international nonviolent direct action on 15 May in support of a
certain CO struggle, accompanied by decentralised activities all over the world since 2002. Focus countries or region of the last years were the Balkans in 2002 [3], Israel in 2003 [4], Chile/Latin America in 2004 [5], Greece in 2005 [6], the United States of America in 2006 [7], Colombia in 2007 [8], and the theme of CO and professional soldiers in 2008 [9].
For 2009, War Resisters' International and Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection agreed to make the situation in South Korea the focus for international activities.

Why South Korea?

Since its foundation in 2001, the South Korean movement for conscientious objection has seen some successes, but has not yet achieved the recognition of the right to conscientious objection. Some of the major successes of the South Korean CO movement were:

  • a reduction of the usual prison term for conscientious objectors from 3 years to 18 months;
  • a decision of the United Nations' Human Rights Committee on two cases of COs from South Korea, declaring the non-recognition of the right to conscientious objection a violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (Article 18 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) [10]
  • a recommendation of the National Human Rights Commission of South
    Korea to recognise the right to conscientious objection [11]
  • an announcement of the Minister of Defence to recognise the right to conscientious objection (September 2007) [12]

However, with the change of government in January 2008 the announcement of the
Minister of Defence to recognise the right to conscientious objection is no longer valid. Presently, the South Korean government is employing a delaying tactic [13], and it will require more pressure on the government to achieve progress regarding the right to conscientious objection.

Presently, more than 420 conscientious objectors are in South Korean for their conscientious objection to military service. About 100 conscientious objectors are facing trials without being detained. It has to be expected that most will receive a prison sentence of 18 months.

While the majority of conscientious objectors are Jehovah's Witnesses, there is also a non-religious movement of conscientious objectors, organised and supported by Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection. Four non-religious conscientious objectors are presently
serving prison sentences [14]


  • Raising international awareness for the situation of conscientious objectors in South Korea, who routinely face 18 months imprisonment.
  • Linking the issue of conscientious objection in South Korea with nonviolent resistance and nonviolent direct action as a tool for social change movements.
  • Exchange of experience in nonviolent direct action and campaigning for the right to conscientious objection among groups from South Korea and abroad.
  • Strengthening international networking of conscientious objectors through joint training and action.

Planned activities

While the planned activities focus on International Conscientious Objection Day - 15 May 2009 - and the period immediately before 15 May, these activities do not stand alone. In fact, War Resisters' International and Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection have a cooperation going back to 2000 and before (see below). International Nonviolence Training and action, Seoul, 10-15 May 2009 Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection and War Resisters' International jointly organise an international training in nonviolent action, in Seoul, as the centre piece of the activities for 15 May 2009.

The international training in nonviolent action will bring together 40-50 participants from South Korea and other parts of the world, who will jointly use the training to share practical tools for nonviolent action. The training will also prepare for a joint nonviolent action on 15 May - International Conscientious Objectors' Day - in Seoul.

The training will be facilitated by a training team from KSCO and WRI, and will cover topics such as the development of nonviolent campaigns, preparing for action, dealing with police, decision making in campaigning groups and during an action, and others.

The experience of War Resisters' International in previous years has shown that a joint training is a good way to increase the understanding of each others contexts and political experiences, and contributes to the development of an international network of conscientious objectors.

International Conference on Conscientious Objection, 16 May 2009

The international activities will culminate with an international conference on conscientious objection in Seoul on Saturday, 16 May 2009. This international conference aims to share the experience of conscientious objection movement from different parts of the world
with a broader audience in Seoul, and to attract media attention. It will contribute to strengthening the case for the right to conscientious objection in South Korea.

Setback for Non-military Service

South Korea rethinks alternative to conscription

Euronews24, 24 December 2008

SEOUL Reuters – South Korea's military indicated on Wednesday it would hold off on a plan for alternative service for conscientious objectors to the armed forces who are now jailed if they refuse conscription.

Military service of about two years is mandatory for all able-bodied South Korean men in order to field a fighting force strong enough to prevent North Korea's 1.2 million-strong army from attacking. The United States stations about 28,000 troops in the South to support its military.

South Korea' Defense Ministry released a survey on Wednesday saying that nearly 70 percent of the public was opposed to allowing alternative service. It has said the poll results would weigh heavily on its policy decision.

"We can understand it is still too early to allow alternative forms of military service for conscientious objectors," spokesman Won Tae-jae told a news briefing. The ministry had not yet made a final decision, he added.

The Defense Ministry has floated the idea over the past few years of allowing conscientious objectors to perform community service or a non-combat military related jobs.

But conservative and veterans groups have objected, saying it would encourage draft dodging and weaken the country's ability to deter North Korea, which on Tuesday repeated a threat to reduce the South to ashes.

About 300,000 men are conscripted each year into the South's military or riot police. But around 750 men annually refuse to join on moral grounds, often because they are pacifists.

They typically receive prison sentences of about two years. Criminal records make it difficult for objectors to find good jobs and the issue of army service is often raised by potential employers during job interviews.

Service starts at the age of 19, although recruits can defer for a few years depending on their family situation or study plans. For almost all young men, military service interrupts their studies at university or the start of their careers.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Kim Junghyun; Editing by Nick Macfie

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mainstream article about We-suck

My Meeting with Kang We-suck

a translation of ‘박태환 군대’ 발언 강의석 만나보니

by Choe Hyeon-jeong,

first published on

(translation by Jeff Lazar)

original article in korean 원본 기사

“Park Tae-hwan is a national hero. I wrote the letter recognizing that just by using his name, it would get many people interested in the issue of the military", said Kang We-seok. Kang, a 22 year-old Seoul National University Law School student, became wrapped in controversy ever since publishing an article addressed to the recent olympic gold medalist titled "Tae-hwan, you too go to the military."

I met Kang on the 9th of September. As a highschool student, Kang, in the name of religious freedom in school, conducted a one man protest. After entering Seoul University Law school he immersed himself in boxing, worked as a taxi driver, a host bar worker, and has, in speaking about the military stirred up much criticism.

During a boxing training session, We-seok suffered a head injury which lead to his being judged eligible for alternative (non-military) public service. I couldn't understand why someone who received this civil service duty would struggle so fervently to oppose military conscription.

"Because of my head injury and my 4th level judgement (exemption from military service), it would be easy for me, compared to others, to serve my obligatory duty. Nonetheless, I didn't want to participate in a job that supports the overall system. As a matter of fact, I think that many people, including women and the physically handicap, not just those who perform a civil service duty, have something to say about the military."

What We-suck is advocating is not for conscientious objection, nor for an alternative civil service, but rather for the abolishment of the military.

But if that is the case, who would protect us? Particularly a divided nation in a state of cease fire like ourselves?

"If everyone put down their weapons, word peace would be possible. Eastern Europe collapsed and the world has changed. Is North Korea really going to invade us? Those of us who don't believe this can't just be labeled communists anymore. If we demilitarize then our opponents will but down their weapons as well. If we put down our weapons and North Korea does invade, the world will not just sit by quietly and watch it happen."

I later asked again if this was not just the childish acts of someone trying to get attention. He responded stating that, following the prosperity of Costa Rica, a small neutral country that has abolished it's military, we could use the expenditures that currently go to the military and distribute them elsewhere to increase the quality of life for our country. I explained how, as an international tool, possessing a military is a method for peace.

We-suck's letter to Tae-hwan has provoked a hostile backlash nationwide. 10,000 people view his personal page daily and for several consecutive days his name has been at the top of the search lists. An article entitled "The truth about Kang We-suck" has been posted in hundreds of spots around the internet provoking individual criticisms.

"People can laugh at me and my flaws all they want, but I want to clarify some misunderstandings. People have posted writings about my sexual experience with my girlfriend. Why would they do something like that? I got my scholarship in highschool from getting top test scores, not from attending church diligently. I started boxing since highschool, and not with the intention of getting an exemption from the military. People also talk about the time I experienced heart-break and took a leave from school. When I was a freshman in college I had a girlfriend who I really liked, and it seemed to me that she really liked me as well. I proposed to her publically in our classroom and I was rejected. It was a blow for me, but I guess she must have found someone else that made her happy. That time when I took of from my studies seemed more like a psychological wandering than a vacation from school. There were prostitutes in the neighborhood where I lived. In the morning as I saw them leaving work, I thought about good my life was, and how they must not be satisfied with the work that they are doing. I suddenly stopped in my place, and I reflected on my life."

I asked him if he was confident he could overcome the critical public opinion over the military issue.

"I may look like a floating cloud, but I'm working hard. Since writing the article I've received many phone calls from supporters. We are cheerful that we have hope to change the world. Don't just criticize. It would be great if we could unite our power and work together. I and a group of around 20 people are in the middle of preparing a 100 man 'Campaign to go to jail" as objectors to the military and an anti military nude parade for Armed Forces Day."

In addition, they are shooting a documentary advocating the abolishment of the military. Many people feel that a nude parade would be too provocative. He could get punished for conducting a lewd performance.

"Why do people think that a nude demonstration would be vulgar? Probably because of the negative sentiment about things like flashers on school campuses. Ill intentioned flashers do inflict sexual shame, but an unarmed human body in and of itself is beautiful and a symbol of peace. If the police arrest us for public lewdness, what can I do? We want to express peace with our beautiful bodies."

He explained that due to many conflicts with his parents over the military issues he left home and now lives alone. His last birthday was the first time he'd spoken with his mother in around two months.

"Choosing to go to jail instead of the military is really a sad story. My mother cried a lot. There was conflict between us. People call it idealistic, but ideals are not bad things. I really do plan on going to prison, but since it's not the fate I want, I will work that much harder to change the system."

This man who I had come to interview seemed to me more naively innocent than worldly. He smacked of an excessive idealism remote from reality. Kang We-suck, as a University student, was in the process of arraigning his own thoughts and communication with the world. His idealism is being criticized in society. There is a lot of talk about the negative influence his speech is having. However, I finished the interview wishing that he gets more constructive and positive influence through his continued contemplation about reality and ideology.

Monday, October 6, 2008

News Reports from the Armed Forces Day nude protest

(source of the pics: Yonhap)

these came from CINA, a frequently updated blog that focuses on progressive social movements in South Korea.

Activist Detained for Streaking at Military Parade (K. Times, 10.01)

Social activist Kang We-suck (강의석) was detained by police Wednesday for running naked into the 60th Armed Forces Day anniversary parade. Kang ran into the middle of the procession in Samseong-dong, one of the richest areas in Korea, holding a gun-shaped cookie, which he blew on before eating it.

His demonstration halted the parade for about a minute before he was taken away to Suseo Police Station.

In an interview with The Korea Times a day earlier, Kang said his acts were designed to promote pacifism and highlight the necessity of abolishing the military draft.

"Being nude is a symbol of peace and disarmament. It represents being actively involved in a nonviolent movement for peace. The distribution of gun-shaped cookies implies that a world without arms is sweet and peace is delicious,'' he said.

"It would only cost $1.5 trillion to solve worldwide poverty and cure all diseases. We are spending over $1.7 trillion in Korea for our military budget. It caused the killing of innocent citizens in Geochang, Gwangju, and Jeju, and the overthrow of the democratic government of Korea at the same time. Recent military actions include depriving citizens of their homes and taking violent action against candlelit rallies,'' he said.

Kang said his nude performance was a way of showing that there was no compromise in his beliefs. "First I thought recruiting soldiers could be okay. But later I thought we do not need a military system at all,'' he said...

Hankyoreh's report about the "event":

As tanks roll down Tehran Street in the Gangnam district during a parade commemorating Army Day on October 1, Kang Ui-seok, 22, a law student at Seoul National University, goes nude to urge the government to dissolve the army.

Kang appeared suddenly at 4:20 p.m and commenced with a short role play in which he brandished a fake gun he had made out of snack food, putting a stop to the parade for about 30 seconds. Kang was arrested immediately.

Police said that prior to the parade, Kang hid for 12 hours in a trench he had dug himself.

According to police, Kang said that If Korea were to dissolve its army, it could help underdeveloped countries by saving the lives of starving children. In explaining his demonstration, Kang said that he had appeared in the nude to symbolize the condition of being unarmed and was meant to evoke peace and nonviolence.

The police booked him on charges of obscenity later that day.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Armed Forces Day's Soft and Fuzzy Advertisment

Narration and Text:

Challenging limits

Most people don't remember how difficult the first step was

The memory of creating something out of nothing

But we know that your initial steps became a way

Your sweat made today

'The nation where hope blossomed within adversity'

Your dream is making the future

'Advanced powerful military! The people together, towards the future, towards the world'

한계에 대한 도전

누구도 기억하지 않습니다 그 첫발이 얼마나 힘들었는지를

무에서 유를 창조한 기억

하지만 우리는 알고 있습니다

당신의 그 한 걸음 한 걸음이

길이 되었다는 것을

당신의 땀이 오늘을 만들었습니다

'역경 속에서 희망을 꽃피운 나라'

당신의 꿈이 미래를 만들고 있습니다

'선진강군! 국민과 함께 미래로, 세계로'

Monday, September 29, 2008

Counter demonstration for Armed Forces Day parade

Its been 60 years since the founding of Korea's military and this Wednesday, October 1st, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) will be celebrating the occasion by showing off its big guns in a good old fashioned military show of force in down town Seoul. Not just guns, but tanks, missiles, and spiffy new uniform designs will be paraded through the streets as well. Meanwhile at Jamshil Olympic Stadium, closed to the general public, the government will host a veritable lollapalooza of VIP attendees featuring concerts, presentations about new high tech military gizmos, and rather unsubtly crafted performances of nationalistic flavor such as "Advanced Powerful Military: The Musical". Peripheral events occurring throughout the month include a letter writing contest for high school students to write letters about why national security and the military are important to Korean society.

Granted, since the holiday stopped being a national day off, the attendance will likely be far few than an average candle light vigil.

While Armed Forces Day (국군 의 날) may not inspire a huge turnout for the ticker-tape, a small but dedicated group of citizens were significantly moved by the planned military pomp and circumstance that they are preparing their own independent events to express what the Korean military means for them.

One of the more ambitious of the counter demonstrators is Kang We-suck. We-suck, a conscientious objector who will serve jail time next year instead of doing his mandatory military service, will likely get a sneak preview of prison life as a result of his protest. Catapulted into the public light as a highschool activist for religious freedom, We-suck will bring his provocative form of protest to the parade, as he plans to confront the rolling tanks head on in the buff. Dancing and hors d'oeuvres are also anticipated as part of the show. We-suck, eager to probe the boundaries of Korea's social sensibilities, will be treading into relatively unknown territory, as Korea lacks a developed tradition of nude protest and will likely interpret the act as a form of perverse exhibitionism. This bare-all standoff with the military will be the latest in a number of symbolic volleys by We-suck, the most well known one being the letter to Park Tae-hwan, olympic gold medalist swimmer. In the now infamous letter, We-suck criticizes the standards for military exemption where athletes who win gold medals are rewarded with not having to fulfill their national duty. His ultimate denouncement, however, is conscription, militarized Korean society, and the military itself. He has been lambasted by conservatives and progressives, accusing him of being immature, taking cheap-shots, sensationalism, and being a traitor.

The Counter Events:

While smaller events are expected to be occuring from 12pm on, at 4pm October 1st, a number of organizations will hold a press conference at Asia Park. Among the sponsoring groups are World Without War, Peace and Human Rights Solidarity, Blood Sisters, and "Gundae?". At 4:30 the groups will begin a direct action counter parade towards Sam Sung station in the direction of the official military procession. At 5:30 back in Asia Park there will be a cultural festival consisting of musical performances.

To get to Asia Park, take the green line # 2 to Sports Complex Stadium station 종합운동장역 in Songpa-gu and exit 1.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

CO Kang We-suck's infamous letter to Olympic medalist Park Tae-hwan

(left: Kang We-suck right: Park Tae-hwan)

Kang We-suck, a Conscientious Objector and activist, has become a sensational and controversial figure recently after writing a letter that has circulated the internet and drawn much criticism from newspapers to netizens. Here is the letter that sparked the controversy.

Hey Tae-hwan, you should go to the military too

(my translation from the University news site "Daehak Nae-il")

original article in Korean

Hello, Marine-Boy (nickname)! This is our first meeting, sorry for speaking banmal (informal speech). You can feel free to call me by my nickname "Babo" (idiot).

I'm We-seok Kang, self-professed 'film director'. Granted, my films have only been screened twice at the CGV theatre before being taken down, but by February of 2009 I expect my completed blockbuster documentary 'Military?' to win top prize in the Cannes Film Festival. If that happens, like an Olympic medalist, in the name of 'enhancing national prestige' I might be blessed with exemption from military duty. But I'm thinking I'll probably reject that favor and go to jail instead. This will mean that for a year and a half I won't be able to work on the film. Or I might never finish it—I could eat mad cow-infected beef and die first.

This Beijing Olympics twenty-two people were granted exemption from military duty. They received prize money worth 50,000 US dollars, as well as a lifetime monthly pension of 1,000 US dollars. Tae-hwan, did you see the moment Korean baseball became the best in the world? In the middle of an all-niter meeting about 'how to abolish the military in Korea', I got a text message from a stranger saying that "Korean baseball won the gold medal" (I've got a lot of fans too^^). In the process of the clean sweep victory Seung-yeop got the nickname 'military duty exemption broker', Tae-ho happily related how "he was more worried about the semifinals, upon which military exemption depended, than the finals. The young athletes who hadn't gone to the military yet experienced a lot of stress."

What I want to say is that the medal earned through hard work has become a royal gift of 'military exemption' for the athlete's achievements. It struck me that if you look at Olympic athletes who are granted exemption from military duty they are like roman era slave-gladiators who win their freedom by slaying their opponent. What is enhancing national honor? The 'standard' is vague. Even if it can be said that national prestige was enhanced, it is impossible to understand what process connects that with military exemption. What sense does it make that a taekwondo medalist whose combat ability is many times greater than a regular person is removed from the military where his strength could be used.

I saw your Wondergirl (famous pop band) friend in the August issue of 'GQ' at a hair salon. In the article she mentioned that whenever they would get lazy Jin-yeong (their producer) would crack the whip and get them working hard again. Asked by a reporter, "This isn't the military, why don't you just skip this practice?" she replied "this is just as important as the military". Seeing this, the military itself being used as the synonym for an important structure and function, I thought about how our culture accepts this as normal. And I felt heavy from head to heart.(however, I wouldn't mind being introduced to her ^^)

Military? Do you think that the military is really necessary? I believe that the military, while claiming to stop violence, in fact is the cause of more violence in the world. For the sake of peace, the institution of militarism must disappear throughout the world. To work for this change, my friends and I are conducting a 100-person campaign, pledging to go to jail instead of the military. Thus far we've gathered 18 people, you would be the 19th. So won't you join us on October 1st, Armed Forces Day, in a nude demonstration with the motto "Demilitarization is Beautiful."

Even if there was a constitutional clause that "condemned a beautiful person to the death penalty", just as no one can (legally) kill you or I, people come before the constitution. People say that the constitution cannot violate individual freedom. Forcibly burdening countless youths with military service ignores article ten of the constitution, guaranteeing the "right to pursue happiness." Discriminating Olympians from regular people infringes on article eleven of the constitution, guaranteeing "equality under the law". Tae-hwan, do you know the reason why 200,000 people have to do a non-military civil duty? Frankly speaking, isn't it because people would complain that "since I spent 2 years in the military so you should waste two years as well. What is this military exemption?" They'd say, "you go to the military too, Tae-hwan. Women too, go to the military."

I don't want to waste my precious life for a ridiculous reason like that.

What I want to say is that, while you are valuable, I'm just as valuable a person as you are. That's all. When you feel like having a drink, send me a message~

(some other English articles on Kang We-suck)

The Korea Times
The Sungshin Mirror

Friday, September 12, 2008

My introduction to Conscientious Objection in Korea

Years ago while attending university in Texas, I befriended a Korean exchange student. We discussed his future plans after finishing college, and I was surprised to hear him say that he could not return back to Korea. The reason for this was even more surprising to me. If he returned to Korea, he would immediately be required to fulfill his two year-long mandatory military service. While he clearly abhorred the idea of this forced military duty, I didn't press for his precise reasons for objecting. He was sacrificing quite a lot with this decision: risking becoming an illegal resident in the United States, a criminal in South Korea, and of course losing the ability to visit his friends, family, and country of origin. Even though I was struck by the suffering and seeming injustice of his situation, I remained largely ignorant about South Korea and the conscription service until moving here years later.

Once I arrived in Korea I found among my circle of friends, artists, musicians, and activists who were openly opposed to militarism in general and forced military service specifically. Not wanting to become martyrs for a political struggle, many of this individuals sought myriad, sometimes extreme, ways to avoid going to the military besides going to prison. Witnessing the effect of this social institution on my friends, I was shocked by how dramatically it altered their lives, their goals, their bodies, and their minds, as well as the profound effect it had on those close to them.

Every year, people like my friend in Texas, Korean-born students and workers around the world face the decision to return to Korea to fulfill their military duty or avoid it by staying abroad. Some enlist proudly and enthusiastically, whereas the majority do so begrudgingly, bowing to the overwhelming pressure of government, culture, family, and friends. Very few Korean men seem willing to risk the state punishment, the social ostracism, and other consequences affecting almost every aspect of one's life that accompany the refusal to join the military. It truly makes me wonder when people refer to conscientious objectors as "cowards", who is showing real courage and principles when the military calls?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Militarism and Resistance in South Korea (Video)

South Korea has more citizens imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service than any other nation in the world. Currently over 700 young men are serving one year and six month sentences. Every year, Korean men face the brutal choice to join the military complex or follow their conscience, facing social ostracism and imprisonment. A history of Japanese imperialism, a civil war sparked by the United States and Soviet jousting. Three decades of military dictatorship. Pervasive United States military presence. Violent destruction of farming villages for the expansion of U.S. bases. A National Security Act that restricts freedom of speech and opposition to military duty. Korea has recently begun to openly face its own contradictions of "democracy" and a deeply ingrained militarization. - Korean social movement solidarity site in English
전쟁없는세상 - Korean anti-militarism and Conscientious Objector solidarity organization "World Without War"

(Video with French Narration) Voici un vidéo introduisant le militarisme et les mouvements de résistance de l'histoire moderne et contemporaine de la Corée du sud.