Jail, stigma await South Korean men who refuse military service

Wed Aug 28, 2013 2:46am EDT
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By Narae Kim

SUWON, South Korea (Reuters) - Sentencing a young man to 18 months in prison in July for refusing to do his mandatory military service, the judge in the South Korean city of Suwon burst into tears.

The judge had handed down verdicts that day in five other criminal cases without emotion, but the case of Im Chang-jo, a 21-year-old Jehovah's Witness, brought out her sympathies.

Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of a Christian denomination that claims about 8 million evangelical members worldwide, are well known for refusing military service and blood transfusions.

But Im, his brother, and hundreds like them have paid a heavy price for their beliefs in South Korea, a U.S. ally technically still at war with North Korea, its unpredictable relative with nuclear ambitions and one of the world's largest armies.

"It is a privilege for me to abide by my conscience and I hope my country allows Jehovah's Witnesses alternative service as soon as possible," Im said in court.

Im joined 669 other Jehovah's Witnesses now jailed in South Korea for refusing military service, according to a June report by the United Nations Human Rights Council. South Korea accounts for 93.5 percent of those imprisoned around the world for reasons of conscientious objection, it said.

The Military Manpower Administration, which ensures every able-bodied South Korean man spends at least 21 months in the army or other services, demanded in March that Im's father fire his son from his farm equipment company for dodging the draft.

Im's mother, Kwon Young-soon, had already been through the courts with her eldest son's refusal to join the army and she also sobbed as the verdict was delivered.   Continued...

South Korean soldiers walk through smoke as they take part in an anti-terror and security drill at the Integrated Government Complex in Sejong, south of Seoul, in this April 17, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/ Files