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.
“I was hoping this wouldn’t happen to my youngest boy,” she said. “After all these years, nothing has changed.”
Im’s brother Bosuk, 32, also ended up working at their father’s company. He believes his criminal record and the stigma of his refusal to do military service barred him from getting a job at a firm he wanted.
All of those in jail are Jehovah’s Witnesses, says activist Yang Yeo-ok of World Without War, a lobby group.
South Korean men who want to work for major companies must provide their status of military service in the application.
The Military Manpower Administration estimates that 6,090 South Korean men have declared opposition to military service between 2004 and mid-2013 on the grounds of religious or moral beliefs. More than 93 percent of them were sent to jail.
Opposition lawmaker Jeon Hae-cheol proposed an amendment to the current session of parliament that would give conscientious objectors the right to perform different forms of service.
“This move is to clear the name of South Korea for being a country with a poor human rights record, despite its strong economic development,” he told Reuters.
Jeon’s move is likely to fail, as have two attempts by other left-of-center lawmakers in the face of public opposition.
A survey of 2,000 citizens last November by the Military Manpower Administration showed 54.1 percent of them were opposed to allowing people like Im to perform other duties.
“If they are denying military service based on their conscience, does that mean we have no conscience?” said Kim Jung-nyun, a 25-year-old who served in the army as an assistant instructor teaching new soldiers basic war skills.
“It demoralizes discharged soldiers like me who sacrificed two years of our prime time for the country.”
Tensions between the two Koreas have stayed high since their 1950-53 war ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
The bellicose, isolated North threatened the South with nuclear annihilation this year. In 2010, it sank a South Korean ship and shelled a South Korean island, killing civilians.
Kim Byung-ryull, a professor at Korea National Defense University also had little sympathy for objectors.
“Conscience is a much more convenient excuse to shirk civilian duties than breaking bones or pulling out healthy teeth,” he said.
Im, talking with Reuters before the verdict, knew he would go to prison and said he would serve his sentence stoically.
“What we are doing is like Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance - painful at the time but worthwhile in the end,” he said.
Editing by David Chance and John O'Callaghan