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Minister of Defence to recognise the right to conscientious objection is no longer valid.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