Hye-min Kim, a South Korean whose Jehovah’s Witness beliefs won’t allow him to complete the nation’s mandatory 18-month military service — or perform alternative service behind prison walls for twice as long — will get his day in court Tuesday, supporters said.
The international rights group Amnesty International has weighed in as the case heads to trial, arguing that Mr. Kim “must not face further punishment for taking a stand against the country’s punitive” alternative system.
The alternative service plan — which critics say is the longest of its kind in the world — came into effect after 2018 Korean Supreme Court and Constitutional Court rulings recognizing the right to conscientious objection. Unlike other alternative service programs, however, the South Korean plan requires not only a 36-month service commitment but also says objectors can work only in a jail or another correctional facility.
Critics claim South Korea’s system effectively brands objectors with criminal records that leave them with long-lasting economic and social penalties.
“Instead of being presented with a genuine alternative to fulfill their service requirements, conscientious objectors are effectively given an alternative punishment because of their religious and other personal objections to joining the military,” Jihyun Yoon, Amnesty International Korea’s director, said in a statement. “Under international law, countries with compulsory military service are obliged to provide a truly civilian alternative of comparable length.”
“Instead of putting conscientious objectors on trial, the South Korean government should focus its efforts on amending the alternative service so that it does not continue to punish and stigmatize those undertaking it,” he added.
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Mr. Kim’s conscientious objector status comes from his affiliation with the Witnesses, one of several small Christian groups in the country whose members cite their faith to refuse to serve in the in the military. Over the past 60 years, Amnesty noted that “hundreds of young South Korean men have been convicted and imprisoned” annually for taking such a position.
Steven Park of the Asia Pacific Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses said, Mr. Kim, “like all other Jehovah’s Witnesses who conscientiously object to military service, welcomes the opportunity to work hard serving his community. He made a personal decision not to accept [alternative service] because of the severity of the restrictions and the excessive duration of the service, which would negatively impact his ability to support his family financially and emotionally.”
A spokesman for the Witnesses said the group expects to have “a constructive dialogue” with the country’s justice minister and other officials to try and resolve the situation.