South Korea May Stop Jailing Jehovah's Witnesses

Constitutional Court Could Overturn Law on Refusing Military Service

South Korea’s Constitutional Court is potentially making a historic change. The court will rule on whether a Korean man can legitimately refuse to serve in the military as a consciousness objector. The decision would stop thousands of Korean men from being arrested and jailed. It also holds particular significance for Korea’s Jehovah’s Witness population.

Under the Military Service Act passed in 1957 all Korean men have to serve in the military. This law was designed to keep South Korea prepared to fight off an invasion from North Korea. North Korea and South Korea fought a war from 1950 to 1953. Even though the fighting ended, a peace treaty was never signed, meaning that the war technically continues to this day.

Some Korean men have tried to abstain from serving by claiming they are conscientious objectors. An objector petitions a government to not serve in combat or the military because of their personal beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to be pacifists.

This has created a problematic legal situation in South Korea. While some lower courts have sided with Jehovah’s Witnesses, twice the Constitutional Court has heard and rejected their positions. Over 19,000 Witnesses have been thrown into jail for refusing service. The amount of prison time is staggering, equaling almost a combined total of 40,000 years.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has recognized the right to refuse military service as a protected freedom. South Korea is one of the few democracies that prosecutes and imprisons conscientious objectors. The South Korean government has jailed more objectors than the rest of the world combined.

It is unclear what decision the court will take. The announcement will be made on June 28.

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