Conscientious Objection to Military Service in South Korea




by Kijoo Kim

(LCDR Republic of Korea Navy & Ph. D. Candidate)



520 Park Hall (North Campus)

Department of Political Science

The State University of New York at Buffalo

Buffalo, NY 14260




The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Ministry of National Defense of Republic of Korea. This study is not for quotation without permission from the author.





More than ten thousands conscientious objectors were imprisoned in South Korea during the last several decades. Nevertheless, the issue of conscientious objection to military service was neglected for a long time by the South Korean government and even by the public. Under the authoritarian military regimes, it was almost impossible for conscientious objectors to raise their voice to the government and the people. One of the main reasons for the lack of attention to the issue of conscientious objection to military service was because of the tension between North and South Koreas. Given the high security problem in the Korean peninsula, military service for men has been regarded as an indispensable duty in order to become a valid citizen. The conscientious objectors not only have faced severe social criticism, but also have been treated as outsiders in society. In the early 2000s, however, the government and people have begun to pay more attention to the issue of conscientious objection to military service because it has been recognized as one of fundamental human rights in the process of democratic consolidation in South Korea. The main purpose of this research is to examine the conflicting views on the issue of protecting conscientious objectors’ human rights under the situation of a national security concern and the conscription system by highlighting the current and historical status of the conscientious objectors, constitutional and statutory perspective to conscientious objection, debates about alternative service, and the role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in promoting South Korean conscientious objectors’ human rights.


Historical Background of Conscientious Objection

Who are conscientious objectors? Why do they refuse to serve in the military? A conscientious objector to military service is a person who objects either to bear arms or to serve in the military or continue to serve in the military because of his or her individual religious, ethical, and moral beliefs that seek pacifism and humanitarianism. Conscientious objectors are classified into several categories on the basis of their motivation, the scope of their belief, and their degree of willingness to cooperate with the government. Religious conscientious objectors include people whose religious beliefs reject war and conflict; secular conscientious objectors’ positions based on individual political or moral beliefs. Universalistic conscientious objectors refuse all kinds of conflicts and wars, while selective conscientious objectors oppose a particular conflict, and discretionary conscientious objectors only reject the use of weapons of mass destruction. Noncombatant conscientious objectors accept military service by working at noncombatant positions like the medical corps, alternative conscientious objectors want to serve in civilian alternative service in stead of military service, and absolutist conscientious objectors reject all types of military and alternative services.[1]  

Conscientious objection originates in the tradition of religious pacifism in Western Christianity. The first Christian conscientious objector in the West was Maximilian, who resisted serving in the Roman army in A.D. 295. In the fourth century, the Christian Church introduced the concept of “just war” and it was developed by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and finally accepted by the major Protestant faiths. During the Reformation, however, some small Protestant sects including the Mennonites and the Moravian Anabaptist Brethren were not willing to accept to the just-war doctrine by arguing that “any notion of justified violence contradicted biblical commandments and the Christian duties of charity and love.” Then, Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses became the most significant religious groups rejecting the military. In the modern era, major countries in the West including America legally recognized conscientious objectors and agreed to accept secular conscientious objectors.[2] The number of secular conscientious objectors dramatically increased throughout World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War. For example, more than 100,000 American men opposed the draft, and 22,500 men were indicted and 8,800 persons were convicted for the violation of the draft law between 1965 and 1975. Unlike previous conflicts, about 72 percent of those convicted were secular objectors.[3] Conscientious objection was deeply rooted in the pacifism of Western Christianity, and its concept was broadened from religious belief to secular ones.

The first known Korean conscientious objectors were thirty-three Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses who were imprisoned by the Government of Japan in 1939.[4] Since then, a seminary student, Hong Myung-Soon, for the first time refused to serve in the military in 1957 based on his religious belief.[5]  Through the experiences of independence from Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War, the South Korean government heavily stressed the importance of nationalism and national security. The value of national security took precedence over individual human rights. Conscientious objectors were not recognized officially by the authoritarian military regimes. Given the situation, military service was regarded as the most fundamental of civic obligations. Even after the democratic transition, little attention was paid to the protection of conscientious objectors’ rights while the number of conscientious objectors in prison increased noticeably (see Table 1).


Table 1 The number of South Korean conscientious objectors in prison between 1992 and 2006.


























2006 (August)









Sources: Lee, Nam-Suck, 2004. Conscientious Objection to Military Service and Civic Disobedience. Greenrain Press. p. 34; Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), 2004. 2003 National Defense NGO Forum, KIDA Press. p. 50; Korea Solidarity Conscientious Objection (KSCO),



In March 2000, a few civil groups and the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in Korea, encouraged by Taiwanese adoption of alternative service for conscientious objectors, strongly demanded that the government recognize the conscientious objection to military service.[6] When Hanguyreh 21, one of the most liberal newspapers in South Korea, printed the story of conscientious objectors in 2001, the mass at last began to pay attention to the issue of conscientious objection.[7] One of the main reasons for the lack of interest and the ignorance of the public concerning the conscientious objection to military service was based in the specific character of conscientious objectors. That is, the majority of Korean conscientious objectors (99% of conscientious objectors) belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church, which has been treated as a pseudo-religion in South Korea largely owing to its resistance to accept the traditional doctrines of Christianity such as the Trinity and disobedience to a basic civic duty of military service. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were introduced to Korea by R.R. Holister in 1912. The church does not allow people in its belief to salute the flag, to participate in government and the military, and even to give or receive blood transfusions. The number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea was approximately 90,000 in 2004.[8] These unique doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses isolated its followers from South Korean society and they lived as a minority. More importantly, the lack of people’s recognition of Jehovah’s Witnesses undermined establishing pacifistic Christian tradition in South Korea, which produced an unfavorable environment for improvement of conscientious objectors’ rights.

Although religious conscientious objection by the Jehovah’s Witnesses still constitutes a major portion of the conscientious objection to military service in South Korea, the phenomenon of conscientious objection has spread among the Buddhists and pacifists, which means that more and more other religious and secular conscientious objectors are refusing to join the armed force in spite of many social disadvantages such as restriction on becoming public officials or serving as directors or officers and the prohibition on obtaining permissions, approvals and licenses for various government-licensed businesses, and the deprivation of the qualification to serve as public officials for a considerable period of time even after the criminal punishment. A Buddhist, Oh Tae-Yang, objected to entering the army on December 18, 2001 because of his belief in Buddhism that is opposed to killing. More recently, an active duty solider, private Kang Chul-Min, announced his conscientious objection on November 21, 2003 by addressing his disagreement against dispatching South Korean troops to Iraq.[9] The new conscientious objection, what Moskos and Chambers called, is occurring in South Korea. This movement toward secularization has not only helped to increase the awareness of people but has also made conscientious objection a significant political and social issue.


Constitutional and Statutory Perspectives to Conscientious Objection

All conscientious objectors have been convicted of the violation of the Military Service Act (MSA), which was mandated by the South Korean Constitution Section 1 of Article 39: “All citizens shall have the duty of national defense under the conditions as prescribed by Act.”[10]  The MSA Article 3 states that “All male citizens of South Korea must sincerely fulfill their military service duties as defined by the Constitution and by this law.”[11] These two laws provide a cornerstone of the universal military conscription system of South Korea.

In particular, the MSA legislated on August 6, 1949, lays out conscription rules, responsibility, and the rules of punishment to enforce the responsibility of fulfillment. According to this law, every male at age eighteen is required to have a conscription physical exam and will be assigned his duty depending on his physical status, although it is possible to postpone the dates of the physical exam and the enrollment for some reasons such as continuation of education, residence in foreign countries, illness, and so on. This law categorizes the military service into the First Citizen Service (Physical levels: first to third levels à Army: 24 months, Navy: 26 months, Air Force: 28 months, Marine Corps: 24 months), the Supplemental Service (Physical level: fourth level or men who have professional skill à public duty personnel service, public health doctor service, expert research personnel and industrial technical personnel service), the Second Citizen Service (Physical level: fifth level à the wartime labor call), the Exemption (Physical level: sixth level or men who do not have high school education), and the Reserve Service (For 8 years service after completing active duty service). Section 1 of Article 88 of the MSA details that if a person who has received a notice of enlistment in the active service or a notice of call evades enlistment or fails to comply with the call without any justifiable reason he shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than three years.[12] The MSA imposes fulfilling the military service responsibilities for all South Korean men and suggests a legal basis for punishing the violation of the military service requirement by limiting individual freedom and rights.

The South Korean Constitution Article 19 guarantees all citizens’ rights to enjoy freedom of conscience and Section 1 of Article 20 also protects all citizens’ rights to enjoy freedom of religion. However, its Section 2 of Article 37 states that freedoms and rights of citizens may be restricted by law only when necessary for national security, the maintenance of law and order or for public welfare. Undoubtedly, we can see a contradiction between the fundamental rights of freedom, conscience, and religion and the basic duty of citizens for national defense.

         Conscientious objectors had appealed three times to the Supreme Court of South Korea in 1969, 1985, and 1992 respectively arguing that conscientious objection on the basis of freedom of religion and conscience is not in violation of the MSA. Decisions from the Supreme Court, however, had consistently rejected their appeals by stating that “conscientious objection to military service is not in the sphere of freedom of religion and conscience, which are guaranteed by the Constitution.”[13] In 2002, the Public Court of Seoul District, South Branch accepted the petition of a conscientious objector named Lee Kyung-Soo (21 years old, a college student) and requested a constitutional review, regarding whether or not the MSA that punishes a person who refuses compulsory military service on the basis of his conscience, is unconstitutional.

Several key points of the petition should be addressed here. First, the petitioner argues that religion and conscience are indispensable elements in realizing dignity and values as humans that is guaranteed by Article 10 of the Constitution. Therefore, criminal punishment of conscientious objectors through constraining the objection to military service is a violation of the Constitution. Second, imposing criminal punishment or enforcing forceful conscription on conscientious objectors, who shall be equal before the law and shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status (Article 11), is in violation of the principle of equality. Third, even if the freedom to exercise religion may be restricted by Section 2 of Article 37, the standard of judgment on the necessity of the restriction is the legal principle of clear and present danger or the prohibition of excessive restriction. Viewed in this light, as the number of conscientious objectors is extremely small, their conscientious objection to military service does not pose a clear and present danger to national defense.[14] Fourth, the implementation of the alternative military service system does not cause a problem with the violation of the right to equality or extensive avoidance of military service when the system equivalent to active duty service in terms of the duration and the degree of hardships.[15]

Two years later on August 26, 2004, the Constitutional Court decided the MSA is not unconstitutional for the following reasons: “First, the freedom of conscience under Article 19 of the Constitution is largely divided into the internal realm of the formation of the conscience and the external realm of the exercise of the conscience that has been formed. Among the freedoms of conscience, the freedom to form the conscience is an absolutely protected basic right as long as it stays within one’s heart, while the freedom to exercise the conscience that is the right to externally express and realize the conscientious decision is a relative freedom that may be restricted by the statute as it may violate the legal order or infringe upon the right of others. Therefore, the freedom of conscience of Article 19 of the Constitution does not endow the individuals with the right to refuse the performance of the duty of military service. The right to refuse the performance of the duty of military service on the ground of conscience may be recognized only when the Constitution itself expressly provides therefore. Second, the claim of the petitioner with respect to the violation of the principle of equality is not in violation of the principle of equality because there exists a fundamental difference between the conscientious objector and those compared to by the petitioners including physical, mental or psychological disabilities or diseases and special talents in the areas of arts and athletics from the perspective of military service. Third, under the unique security situation in the Korean peninsula, the duty of military service has an important meaning that is incomparable to other nations. Although it is true that there has been a change in the concept of national defense and the aspect of modern warfare, the proportion of human military resources in the national defense power may still not be neglected. Fourth, when an important public interest of national security, which is the prerequisite for the existence of the nation and for all liberties, is at issue, it may not able to request an immoderate legislative experiment that might harm national security in order for the maximum guarantee of the liberty of the individuals. Accordingly, the possibility of expansion of the evasion of military service by the adoption of the alternative service system may not be ruled out, although the proportion of the conscientious objectors to the overall number of individuals subject to conscription is not great currently.” Then, the Constitutional Court suggested that “in order to adopt the alternative service system, the peaceful coexistence between South Korea and North Korea should be established and the incentives for evading military service should be eliminated through the improvement of the condition of the military service.” More importantly, the Court stressed that “a consensus should be formed among the members of the social community that permitting the alternative service will harm neither the realization of equality in the burden of performing the duty of military service nor the social unity, through the wide spread understanding and tolerance of the conscientious objectors.”[16]

Even though the decision of the Constitutional Court soothed the controversial issue in regard to whether or not the criminal punishment based on the MSA on those who objected to military service on the ground of their religious conscience is in the violation of the Constitution, it did not fundamentally solve the issue. For this reason, it recommended that the legislators should seriously assess the possibility of a solution for eliminating the conflict between the legal interests of freedom of conscience and national security while securing the realization of the public interest of national security and the possibility of adopting an alternative service system as well.


Debates about Alternative Service

Conscientious objectors have consistently requested the adoption of alternative service. They reject bearing arms and various tasks in the military, but they are not refusing to serve in civilian services to fulfill their duties for national defense. In this regard, South Korean conscientious objectors can be classified into alternative conscientious objectors. The alternative service refers to a military service system under which the conscientious objectors provide service for the public interest in the state institutions, the public organizations and the social welfare facilities in lieu of performing the military service. South Korean government provides different types of alternative services. These are not for conscientious objectors but for the people who have physical handicap or professional skill.

The adoption of civilian alternative service by a state can be an effective indicator of governmental recognition and accommodation of conscientious objection.[17] Under the all-volunteer military system, it is relatively easy to implement the alternative service system; however, it is a different situation under the compulsory military system. According to a UN report in 1997, the number of countries which provided for civilian and/or unarmed military service was twenty-five, while forty-eight states which had conscription did not provide alternative service.[18] The number of countries in which provision is made for civilian and/or unarmed military service has been increased largely due to the spread of liberal democracies. Furthermore, more and more countries have changed their military system from the conscription system to the all-volunteer one.[19] The length of alternative service in most countries is generally 1.5 times longer than that of active duty.[20]

South Korean civil organizations and NGOs for conscientious objectors’ rights have requested the government to adopt alternative service for conscientious objectors, insisting that those countries in which severe national security concern and conscription system exist have already implemented the system. For example, Taiwan legalized alternative service in January 2000. According to the Alternative Service Act, passed through the Legislative Yuan of Taiwan, all conscripts in Taiwan can apply for alternative service. In the case of general alternative service, those who are classified as active duty after physical examination can apply for this type based on their will and are required to serve twenty-six months (four months longer than active duty). For religious objectors, the term for alternative service lasts thirty-three months (one and a half times longer than active duty), while they have exemptions from four-week military training before their assignments. Specifically, applications of religious objectors are strictly screened by the military, which includes a certificate from their religious group and an interview. South Korean NGOs claim that there has been no sign that national security has been threatened by alternative service after the enforcement of the Act or that it has undermined the conscription system. Rather, it has contributed to the expansion of social welfare and the promotion of human rights. NGOs assert that the implementation of the alternative system in Taiwan fundamentally resolved the conflict between conscientious objection and civil duty and enabled Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to introduce the system, although only religious objectors are included.[21] Needless to say, the case of Taiwan provides a strong rationale for South Korean NGOs to force the government to introduce alternative system. They argue that the implementation of alternative service will also contribute to the improvement of human rights within the army, the positive effect on the relationship between two Koreas, the enhancement of national image, and the consolidation of democratic system.[22]

In response to these requests, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) addressed its first official opinions with respect to the adoption of alternative service in 2001. First of all, the MND contends that the nature of the security situation of South Korea is fundamentally different in terms of the severity of security problems from that of a country such as Taiwan asserted by the conscientious objectors and NGOs, as the best example of adoption of alternative service in spite of similar security dilemmas. In other words, Taiwan’s security concern is not as serious as South Korea’s one because of the ongoing high tension between two Koreas, which comes from various factors such as frequent military conflict, tangible military threats, relatively low economic cooperation and individual connections.[23] Second, the alternative service is a de facto exemption of military service. Allowing alternative service as an option in a nation that adopts the mandatory conscription system is against the fundamental aspects of the mandatory conscription of uniformity and equality, which will result in discrimination against those who have already performed military service. Third, the adoption of the alternative service would cause dramatic increase of those evading military service that might collapse the mandatory conscription system with decreasing number of potential draftees (see Table 2). Furthermore, it would be difficult to discern conscientious objectors from draft dodgers. By contrast, Taiwan’s force reduction plan in 1997 generated surplus potential draftees and allowed the Executive Yuan to approve the proposal of alternative service. Fourth, as the majority of conscientious objectors are Jehovah’s Witnesses, allowing alternative service to a particular religious group would cause social and religious conflict. This is not the case for Taiwan, because the portion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Taiwanese religion (only 4,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2002) and in alternative service (only 43 religious conscientious objectors out of 10,055 alternative servicemen in 2001) is a minority.[24]

Table 2 Numbers of Required Active Duty and Available Draftees between 2003 and 2012.


































Source: Jung, Joo-Sung, Jung, Won-Young, and An, Suk-Ki. 2003. Desirable Directions of Korean Military Service Policy. KIDA Press. pp. 61-64, 112-119.


It seems that these sharp contrasting views on the issue of alternative service between conscientious objectors or NGOs and the MND are not likely to create room for coexistence. The best way for resolving this conflict is to transfer the military service system from conscription to all-volunteer. Unfortunately, it is not a plausible scenario unless permanent peace and stability in the Korean peninsula is established and significant financial resources are provided. Ever since a case of the convicted conscientious objectors was initially issued, the MND had taken a stand against the implementation of alternative service. However, the MND announced that “it has decided to introduce alternative military service to protect human rights of conscientious objectors and prevent them from being branded as draft dodgers” in September 2007. The service term will be 36 months and the alternative service will be very demanding such as working at the Hansen’s disease hospital, the tuberculosis hospital, and mental hospitals. If this revision of the draft law is approved by the National Assembly, it will be effective as early as January 2009. This unexpected decision of the MND created political and social controversy. Specifically, some conservative groups like President-elect Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party (GNP) and the South Korea Veterans Association strongly opposed the introduction of alternative service.[25] The public opinion was also not favorable for the alternative service.[26] It is fair to say, therefore, that passing the reform will be very difficult and it will be interesting to see what will happen in the near future.


The Role of NGOs in Promoting Conscientious Objectors’ Rights

Why did the MND decide to allow alternative services for conscientious objectors in spite of harsh criticisms from the conservative groups? The answer may lie in the effect of democratization. As a state experiences deepening democracy, the extent of tolerance toward conscientious objectors in the military and a society may increase. South Korea has undergone a successful democratic transition and consolidation since the late 1980s, which has accomplished remarkable achievements including individual political rights and civil liberties, freedom of speech, consolidation of electoral democracy, and greater guarantee for human rights. This democratic progress obviously plays a driving force to accelerate the process of recognition of conscientious objection to military service.

NGOs are primary actors in the advocacy of human rights. Few would deny that NGOs played a critical role in improvement of the conscientious objectors’ rights. NGOs’ activities pressured the government to recognize the conscientious objection to military service. After the issue of conscientious objection to military service was initially recognized in 2001 through the media, a few NGOs and individuals began to participate in the activity of protection of the conscientious objectors’ rights. Among those NGOs, the Korea Solidarity for Conscientious Objection (KSCO) has played a leading role in improvement of the conscientious objectors’ rights. KSCO’s vigorous efforts made a significant improvement for the conscientious objectors’ rights. As noted earlier, the government has recently decided to adopt the alternative military service for the conscientious objectors by 2009, although the legislation process for alternative service may encounter severe social and political obstacles. I think that investigating the role and activities of KSCO in protecting and promoting conscientious objectors’ rights will help us to understand better the situation of conscientious objection to military service in South Korea. 

The KSCO was established in 2002 and is located in Seoul, South Korea. This NGO is a combined organization of thirty-six civil groups. Before its establishment, several NGOs and individuals already worked for the improvement of conscientious objectors’ rights; however, their activities were neither centralized nor fruitful. For this reason, they realized the necessity of the creation of an NGO, which can function for improving conscientious objectors’ rights in a systematic way. The ultimate goals of KSCO are to make the government recognize conscientious objection to military service and to adopt alternative service for conscientious objectors. To attain these goals, the KSCO has become involved in many activities: legal aid and consultation to conscientious objectors, campaigns and seminars, cooperation with domestic and international NGOs, and research. The leader of the KSCO is a monk named Hyorim, who is also a leader of Silchun Buddhism.[27] As a monk, he emphasizes the importance of Buddhism’s principal norms, such as justice, peace, human rights, harmony, and prohibition of any kind of killing and destruction. An executive committee composed of three key members, including an attorney, a professor, and a leader of a civil organization plays an important role in the activities of KSCO. They are representatives of KSCO and direct the activities of the organization involved. The leadership frequently stresses that the KSCO is not an organization for a particular religious group like Jehovah’s Witnesses, but a comprehensive civil group working for all conscientious objectors, regardless of their social, political, and religious backgrounds. No one in the leadership belongs to that church.

How did the KSCO attain the intended objectives? The KSCO performed and applied a variety of strategies. Four strategies: information, symbolic, leverage, and accountability politics, suggested by Keck and Sikkink, are commonly employed by KSCO.[28] Information should be reliable and well documented. Timely and dramatically disseminated information maximizes its effect on the press, the government, and the public.[29] Ever since the issue of conscientious objection to military service was raised, KSCO tried to gather credible information and disseminate it properly in a dramatic way. It initiated fact-finding activity by taking various field studies. KSCO visited the imprisoned conscientious objectors and interviewed them to get testimonial information and private stories. Along with technical and statistical information, KSCO dramatically repackaged the information and presented it to the press and the public. For example, KSCO provided data, regarding the number of imprisoned families because of their conscientious objection, to a member of the National Assembly.

In addition, KSCO invited Chien His-Chien, who was the Executive Director of Peacetime Foundation, to hear Taiwan’s legislation procedures for alternative service in March 2001 and sent eleven representatives to Taiwan in July 2001 to acquire more information with respect to Taiwanese alternative service and NGOs’ activities for conscientious objectors’ rights. During their visit to Taiwan, they documented information about the factors which influenced the adoption of alternative service and system management and so on. After the visit, the KSCO efficiently used it to pressure the government by reporting it to the press and publishing it in the academic spheres.[30]

KSCO has also made an effort to disseminate information of conscientious objectors to international organizations. Representatives of KSCO have regularly attended the War Resisters’ International (WRI) conference and the International Conscientious Objector’s Day. Also, the KSCO reported the current situation of conscientious objectors when executive committee members of Amnesty International (AI) and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) visited South Korea in 2001 and 2002. Through this meeting, KSCO could generate a link with them and exchange information. KSCO has regularly hosted four domestic conferences and two international conferences and a number of small scale forums for the issue of conscientious objection to military service. In order to educate potential conscientious objectors, KSCO published two books and opened a school and camp for prospective conscientious objectors, which they can attend annually. One of the most important activities of KSCO is to form a close relationship with the media. KSCO is well aware of the significant role of the media on information dissemination. In this regard, KSCO participated in a famous South Korean talk show program, called One Hundred Persons Discussion, and has even made two documentary films to broadcast to the public. Furthermore, KSCO has maintained a good relationship with the press, specifically with Hanguyreh. KSCO always arranges a press meeting when a new conscientious objector announces his objection to military service.[31] KSCO shows effective and systematic information dissemination strategies in broad areas, which contributes to the increased awareness by the public.

Through these activities, KSCO plays a key role in drawing the media and the public’s attention. Table 3 indicates the media coverage regarding the issue of conscientious objection to military service since 2001 when the conscientious objection to military service was first acknowledged by the press. The media paid more attention to the issue in 2004 because of the decision of the Constitutional Court. Since that time, the media’s interest has diminished continuously. More attention from the media and the public does not necessarily mean that NGOs have a success in changing people’s value. Several surveys clearly showed that people did not fully support conscientious objection in spite of the increased attention.[32] Nevertheless, high attention from the media and the public can help to draw a modification of the value, which is the core goal of issue creation and agenda setting.


Table 3 Media Coverage of the Conscientious Objection to Military Service (COMS) and

Alternative Service (AS) between 2001 and 2006.

Media Coverage









7 / 10

37 / 17

20 / 8

102 / 28

28 / 19

6 / 3



0 / 0

2 / 1

1 / 0

17 / 4

3 / 2

0 / 0

Source: The Korean Integrated News Database System. at

              Five major newspapers are included: Chosunilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, Hankukilbo, Hankyure, Kunhangsinmun.

Three main TVs are included: KBS, MBC, SBS.



The main purpose of symbolic politics is to maximize people’s attention through symbolic events, actions, symbols, and stories.[33] KSCO has continuously worked to increase people’s attention to the issue of conscientious objection to military service. Its major tactics are various campaigns, performances, assemblies, one-person protests, and fasts. KSCO arranges large scale campaigns and assemblies. For example, it encouraged major universities’ student associations in Seoul to participate in several rallies demanding the right for conscientious objection. KSCO also initiated a campaign to obtain a petition with 50,000 signatures in 2002 to deliver to the National Assembly. Currently, KSCO is involved in a campaign to obtain 100,000 people’s signatures. Awarding the 2006 Lee Woo-Jung Peace Prize to an executive committee member of the KSCO heightened public awareness of the activities of the organization.[34] KSCO has succeeded in maximizing people’s attention by applying these various activities.

NGOs are in most cases weaker than their target actors. For this reason, they need to call upon powerful actors to influence a situation where they are unlikely to have influence through identifying material and moral leverages.[35]KSCO brought three powerful actors into its supporters. At first, KSCO succeeded in persuading some Congressmen of the National Assembly to support its activity. KSCO targeted statesmen who have liberal ideology and are sensitive to political support from young liberal groups. A couple of politicians from the Democratic Party tried to legalize alternative service in response to KSCO’s request in 2001. However, this attempt was blocked by the conservative groups and the Christian Council of Korea that strongly condemned it as describing a privileged law to a particular pseudo-religious group.[36] In 2004, twenty-two Congressmen submitted a bill for alternative service and held a public hearing before the National Assembly. The bill was designed to allow conscientious objectors to select to serve as firefighters or social service workers in lieu of military service. The period of service suggested in this bill was 36 months, which is one year longer than the required 24-month military service.[37] Another bill was also suggested by ten members of the Democratic Labor Party in the same year. The two bills are still under review at the National Assembly without any further progress and there has been difficulty in passing the bill without severe conflict.[38]

Since 2001, KSCO has appealed to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRC) regarding the recognition of conscientious objection and the adoption of alternative service. One of the complaints KSCO submitted to the NHRC was the case of the prison’s prohibition of religious services by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In response to this complaint, the NHRC recommended permission of religious service to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in 2002 by stating that “(1) The prison’s prohibition of religious services by Jehovah’s Witnesses in detention constitutes discriminatory conduct, violating the right to equality (Article 11(1)) and the right to freedom of religion (Article 20(1)) under the Constitution. (2) The Commission held that repressing members of a specific faith group from having religious services inside state-run detention facilities could be found to be unconstitutional in light of the principle of separation of state and religion.”[39] In 2003, the MOJ allowed Jehovah’s Witnesses to have a regular religious service in prison. Moreover, the NHRC held a public hearing concerning the issue of conscientious objection to military service and recommended in December 2005 that the government recognize the individual’s right to refuse military service for their religious beliefs, calling for an alternate form of service to be considered. It was the first time that a state institution officially recognized conscientious objectors’ rights.

The third partner of KSCO is the United Nations. In 2002, KSCO submitted a written statement contained the denial of the right of conscientious objection to military service in South Korea to the Commission on Human Rights (fifth-eighth session) through the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC).[40] Two years later, KSCO filed a petition with the U.N. Human Rights Committee on behalf of two conscientious objectors: Choi Myung-Jin and Yoon Yeo-Beom. This was the first time South Korean conscientious objectors brought their case to the U.N. Human Rights Committee. After examining the case, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights on December 4, 2006 expressed its deep concern regarding South Korea’s denial for recognition of conscientious objection to military service and punitive rules against conscientious objectors by pointing out South Korea’s violation of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICPSR). The Committee strongly urged the South Korean government to “respect and endeavor to implement recommendations by NHRC and immediately stop conducting interrogation in custody and criminalizing conscientious objectors by providing various forms of alternative services…”[41] Although the decision of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has no legal authority, it would urge the South Korean government to seriously reconsider the issue of conscientious objection to military service, because the international community is keenly looking at this issue and the government should respond to this recommendation of the U.N.

The right to conscientious objection to military service is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 18, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” In 1987, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution recognizing conscientious objection to military service as a human right and delineated its position that “we urge a universal recognition of the right of conscientious objection…”[42] and declared the necessity of alternative service for conscientious objectors and the prohibition of criminal punishment of conscientious objectors in 1993. The Commission on Human Rights has reaffirmed the right of conscientious objectors through repeated resolutions.[43] South Korea signed and ratified the above Covenant in 1990 without any reservation with respect to Article 18 of the UDHR and Article 18 of the ICCPR and became a member of the U.N. in 1991. To identify a government’s publicly committed principle and its gap between practice is a useful tactic to constrict powerful actors, although this strategy should be linked to popular mobilization.[44] KSCO has effectively pressured the government to acknowledge its responsibility to protect the rights of conscientious objectors by insisting that the South Korea government must act in accordance with the resolutions as a member of the Commission.

All together, these internal and external pressures forced the South Korean government to reconsider the issue. In April 2006, for example, MND established a committee for the study of alternative service, which was composed of seventeen panels from civil organizations and the government. Since that time, MND and NGOs have met regularly on this issue. This involves important changes of a state’s discursive position and institutional procedures.[45] Finally, MND changed the policy toward conscientious objection to military service in 2007.



It is true that military service is one of the most fundamental duties of citizens and establishes a pact with the people of the country. Military service demonstrates one’s loyalty to their country. Under the strengthened nationalism and continuing national security concern, the South Korean government and the public rejected the voice of conscientious objectors as inappropriate. The government neglected them and people viewed them differently. As a result, conscientious objectors existed as outcasts in South Korean society. Conscientious objection has been able to attract great attention in South Korean society in the process of democratic consolidation. The increased awareness boosted NGOs’ activities for protecting conscientious objectors’ rights, although the specific issue of conscientious objection in South Korea created many structural obstacles for NGOs to surmount. To overcome these constraints, KSCO has attempted a variety of activities and strategies. Despite its short period of history and insufficient resources, it achieved noticeable outcomes. It succeeded in the creation of this issue in South Korean society and forced the government to change its policy toward conscientious objectors. Facing domestic and international pressures, the MND could not continuously refuse to recognize conscientious objectors’ rights to object to military service and to implement alternative service. It seems that conscientious objection in the military is now shifting from prohibited or punished to permitted in South Korea with consolidating democracy. However, conscientious objection to military service is very sensitive to South Korean society, politics, and people. The ongoing national security concern and the conscription system provide a strong rationale to the conservative groups to turn down appeals of the conscientious objectors. Men who completed or will do their duties for military service also may not support conscientious objectors by claiming that conscientious objection cannot be justified in terms of individual inequality in civic duty. A negative view on the issue of conscientious objection to military service that argues freedom of conscience can not take precedence over national security, given ongoing security problems in the Korean peninsula, is still influential in South Korea.



[1] Moskos, Charles C. and John Whiteclay Chambers II, 1993. “The Secularization of Conscience,” in Moskos, Charles C. and John Whiteclay Chambers II eds., The New Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance. Oxford University Press. p. 5.

[2] Moskos and Chambers, op. cit., pp. 9-15.

[3] Chambers II, John Whiteclay. 1993. “Conscientious Objectors and the American State from Colonial Times to the Present,” in Moskos, Charles C. and John Whiteclay Chambers II eds., The New Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance. Oxford University Press. p. 41.

[4] At that time, Koreans did not have an obligation for Japanese military service; they were imprisoned due to not conducting the pilgrimage to Yasukuni. see Park, Han-Joo, 2002. “A Study on the Objection to Military Service,” M.A. Thesis. Korea National Defense University. Seoul, South Korea. p. 37. (in Korean)

[5] Kim, Doo-Sik. 2002. “Conscientious Objection to Military Service and Christianity,” Human Rights and Justice 309: p. 150. (In Korean)

[6] Taiwan adopted alternative service for conscientious objectors in January 2000; however, only religious objectors are included. For details, see Han, Hong-Koo. 2002. “The Observation Report of Taiwanese Alternative Service,” in Seoul National University BK 21 Human Rights Law Center, Conscientious Objection to Military Service. People’s Thought Press. pp. 285-320. (in Korean)

[7] Hanguyreh 21, February 15, 2001.

[8] Hanguyreh 21, June 1, 2004.

[9] As of 2005, 20 conscientious objectors are Buddhists or pacifists. Korea Solidarity Conscientious Objection (KSCO),

[10] The Constitutional Court of Korea,

[11] The Military Service Act (Law No. 7977, September 22, 2006),

[12] The Military Manpower Administration of  South Korea,

[13] Im, Jong-In. 2003. “Conscientious Objection to Military Service in South Korea,” in KIDA eds., 2003 National Defense NGO Forum. KIDA Press. p. 55. (in Korean)

[14] The conscientious objectors constitute approximately 0.2 % of the individuals who were conscripted as of 2004.

[15] Na, Dal-Sook, 2006. “Conscientious Objection and Alternative Service,” Human Rights and Justice 359: pp. 133-135. (in Korean)

[16] I briefly summarized the major points of the decision by the Constitutional Court of South Korea regarding the case of conscientious objection to military service, KCCR 141, 2002Hun-Kal, August 26, 2004.

[17] Moskos and Chambers II. op. cit., p. 8

[18] The Question of Conscientious Objection to Military Service: Report of the Secretary-General prepared pursuant the Commission resolution 1995/83, U.N. ESCOR, 53rd Session., Provisional Agenda Item 23, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1997/99.

[19] European countries are transforming their draft systems from conscription toward all-volunteer. Haltiner, Karl W. and  Tibor Szvircsev, Tresch. 2007. “New Trends in Civil-Military Relations: The Decline of Consciption in Europe,” Paper presented at the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society 2007 Biennial International Conference at Chicago, Illinois U.S.A. October 26-28, 2007; Kwon, Hee-Myun, 1998. “The Changing Trends of Military System in Europe,” The Weekly Defense Review 727: pp. 1-9. (in Korean)

[20] The length of active duty: alternative service (months); Germany (9:10), Portugal (4:7), the Czech Republic (12:18), Taiwan (22:26), Brazil (12:18). Na, Dal-Sook, op. cit., p. 359.

[21] For details about Taiwan’s case, see The Peacetime Foundation of Taiwan (Taiwanese NGOs for the improvement of COs’ rights) at; Han, Hong-Koo. op. cit., pp. 285-320; Hanguyreh 21, March 29, 2001.

[22] Oh, Jong-Kwon. 2001. “Grounds for Alternative Service and Ways for Legalization,” Human Rights and Justice 298: pp. 69-77 (in Korean); Choi, Jung-Min, 2003. “Rational Co-existence between Individual and State,” in KIDA eds., 2003 National Defense NGO Forum. KIDA Press. pp. 73-110. (in Korean)

[23] As a result of Israel’s heightened concern with their security, Israel has not recognized conscientious objection for men; it is only partially recognized for Jewish Orthodox women that grants exemption from the military service. Alternative service is not available, either. However, some selective conscientious objectors who resist to serve in the occupied territories may be allowed to perform their military service within Israel only when their commanding officers permit it. For more information about Israel case see Yoram Peri, 1993. “Israel: Conscientious Objection in a Democracy under Siege,” in Moskos, Charles C. and John Whiteclay Chambers II eds., The New Conscientious Objection: From Sacred to Secular Resistance. Oxford University Press. pp. 146-157; Reuven Gal and Stuart A. Cohen, 2000. “Israel: Still Waiting in the Wings,” in Moskos, Charles C., John Allen Williams, and David R. Segal eds., The Postmodern Military: Armed Forces After the Cold War. Oxford University Press. pp. 224-241; War Resisters’ International (WRI), 2003. “Conscientious objection to military service in Israel: an unrecognized human right,” Report for the Human Rights Committee in relation to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, available at

[24] Kim, Byong-Ryol. 2002. “Problems of Conscientious Objection to Military Service,” in Seoul National University BK 21 Human Rights Law Center, Conscientious Objection to Military Service. People’s Thought Press. pp. 135-155 (in Korean); Kwok, Yong-Soo. 2003. “Equality of Military Service Duty and Conscientious Objection,” in KIDA eds., 2003 National Defense NGO Forum. KIDA Press. pp. 59-72 (in Korean); Park, Kyung-Kyou. 2003. “The Proper Understanding of Conscientious Objection and Alternative Service,” in KIDA eds., 2003 National Defense NGO Forum. KIDA Press. pp. 111-128 (in Korean); Jung, Joo-Sung, Jung, Won-Young, and An, Suk-Ki. 2003. Desirable Directions of Korean Military Service Policy. KIDA Press. (in Korean)

[25] The Korea Times, September 18, 2007; Hankookilbo, September 18, 2007.

[26] According to a recent survey conducted by a member of the National Defense Committee in the National Assembly, 46.2 % of 1,009 survey respondents opposed to alternative service and only 24.2 % of respondents agreed to the introduction of the alternative service. Yonhap News, October 14, 2007.

[27] Silchum Buddhism aims at creating the lotus world. It has been involved in many activities, including education and research for developing Buddhism, assistance for human rights and the peace movement, support for NGOs, and international charities. Details at

[28] Focusing on the activities of transnational advocacy networks, Keck and Sikkink categorized the networks’ mechanisms into four types of tactics or strategies: (1) information politics, or the ability to gather politically relevant information and its timely dissemination where it will influence on the press, the public, and policymakers most effectively; (2) symbolic politics, or the ability to frame issues or stories through symbolizing and dramatizing; (3) leverage politics, or the ability to influence target actors by means of leveraging more powerful actors; (4) accountability politics, or the ability to force target actors to hold their previous commitment by identifying the gap between discourse and practice. see Keck, Margaret E. and Kathryn, Sikkink. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[29] Keck and Sikkink, op. cit., pp. 18-19.

[30] Han, Hong-Koo. op. cit., pp. 285-320.

[31] Data comes from the website of the KSCO at and individual interview with an executive committee member.

[32] Chosunilbo, May 24, 2004. 75 % of survey respondents opposed to conscientious objection in 2004.

[33] Keck and Sikkink, op. cit., pp. 22-23.

[34] Yonhap News, May 26, 2006. The Lee Woo-Jung Peace Prize was established in 2005 in memory of her sacrifice for improvement of women’s rights and peace movement.

[35] Keck and Sikkink, op. cit., pp. 23-24.

[36] Hanguyreh 21, July 11, 2001.

[37] The Korea Times, August 12, 2004.

[38] Choi, Jung-Min, an executive committee member of KSCO, said that the bill submitted in 2004 is still under review. She also mentioned that it will be difficult to pass the bill in the near future. An interview on December 5, 2006.

[39] A detailed case is available at

[40] U.N. ESCOR. Civil and Political Rights, Including the questions of: Conscientious Objection to Military Service 1996/31, 58rd Session., U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/2002/NGO/79.

[41] U.N. ESCOR. Civil and Political Rights, Including the questions of: Conscientious Objection to Military Service, 62nd session., U.N.Doc. E/CN.4/2006/NGO/184.

[42] The resolution for conscientious objectors was adopted by a vote of twenty six in favor, two (Iraq and Mozambique) against, and fourteen abstaining. see U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Resolution 1987/46, conscientious objection to military service, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1987/L.73.

[43] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), available at; U.N., Commission on Human Rights, conscientious objection to military service, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1993/84; E/CN.4/1995/83; E/CN.4/1998/77; E/CN.4/2000/34; E/CN.4/2002/45; E/CN.4/2004/35, available at

[44] Keck and Sikkink, op. cit., pp. 24-25.; Welch, 2000, op. cit., p. 107.

[45] The Korea Times, November 5, 2005.