Asa conscientious objector c South Korea, Kim Hye-min struggled with military service for years. The 28-year-old man belongs to Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination he accepts principled position against the war. Its members refuse the minimum 18-month military service required of all able-bodied South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35.
In 2016, Kim was justified for violation of military service. Two years later, South Korea’s Supreme Court cited the experience of Kim’s co-religionists in its governing that conscientious objection is not a crime.
The court’s finding put the onus on lawmakers to come up with an alternative to the draft that now exists. But when the Military Administration called him on it, Kim refused to go.
“I told them I had no intention of reporting,” he tells TIME from Gwangju, a city of 1.5 million people about 267 miles south of the capital, Seoul.
The reason? The alternative doesn’t seem so different from prison.
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In exchange for being exempt from military service, South Korean conscientious objectors are expected to work in the country’s prison system. They usually rotate between jobs in prison laundries and kitchens, with periods of administrative duties. They also serve 36 months – twice as long as conscripts. Although they get a few weeks of leave, they have to live in the prisons, where their movement is regulated.
Almost 900 men are currently subject to such orders, many of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses. (According to the Department of Defense at the end of June, another 1,485 eligible men were still waiting to be called up for alternative service.) Not surprisingly, the objectors felt they were getting a punishment rather than another way to serve their country.
Kim goes to trial on October 13 for refusing to serve in a correctional facility. He wants his case to draw attention to the controversial treatment of conscientious objectors in South Korea.
“I hope the process will improve the current situation,” he says.
Young South Korean men take part in a medical examination for conscription at the Seoul Regional Military Administration in Seoul on February 7, 2022, as South Korea maintains a conscription system that requires almost all able-bodied men to serve in the army.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images
Avoiding the South Korea project
An armistice agreement has been in place on the Korean peninsula since 1953, but technically the South is still at war with the nuclear-armed North and conscription is taken very seriously. The government retains a public database of fugitives. Applicants for conscientious objector status endure intense scrutiny of their personal lives – for example, they must convince investigators that they have never gambled violent video games.
Before an alternative conscription was offered, opponents were jailed, with some 19,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses thrown behind bars over the years for their stance. During the martial law years of the 1970s, some were tortured, beaten or even killed. To this day the members of the denomination are social pariahs.
Others who manage to avoid the service are also reprimanded. Nineties K-pop sensation Yu Xun Jun he was supposed to be drafted in 2002, but he renounced his citizenship just before his draft. There was a huge public backlash and Yu has been banned from setting foot in South Korea ever since.
In 2004, MC Mong, one of the most successful television personalities and hip-hop artists in South Korea, had 10 teeth extracted. The artist says it was necessary dental surgery that led to a legal discharge from military service, but his career never recovered.
Read more: The dark side of life in South Korea
Although the law allows for civilian service in “areas of public interest” other than prisons, for now work in correctional facilities appears to be the only option. Those who serve can only leave their assigned prisons on certain days. A curfew is in place from 9:30 p.m. Phones and other devices are handed over during business hours.
Human rights groups called out the South Korean government for the punitive appearance of the system. international amnesty says that South Korea’s 36 months is the longest period of civilian service in the world. (By comparison, the Council of Europe has set a “reasonable” maximum length of civil service at 1.5 times length of military service.)
In response to TIME’s questions, a Defense Department spokesman said improvements to alternate service could only come “once the system is firmly established.”
Meanwhile, a three-year delisting created professional and personal setbacks for the objectors.
“I’m worried that when I go back to society, there will be difficulties,” said Kim Jin-wook, who is about to begin his third year at Mokpo Prison, a few miles outside of Gwangju. He spoke wistfully of Taiwan, where conscription and civilian service are set just 12 months apart.
South Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors are awaiting an induction session at a correctional facility where they will begin work in Daejeon on October 26, 2020.
ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images
Changing attitudes towards military service
Of course, it is not only conscientious objectors who face difficulties. Many Korean conscripts talk about abuse it comes with being deeply ingrained in the military”barracks culture.” Bullying and sexual violence have led to suicides and shootings.
Cho Kyu-suk is a coordinator at the Seoul-based Center for Military Human Rights in Korea, an NGO offering counseling for people traumatized by their experiences in the armed forces. He argued that major reform of South Korea’s military system was overdue.
“To improve alternative service, we also need to improve the active service environment,” says Cho.
Who can avoid military service is always a hot topic. Many argue that the conscription system can be run by the elite. The Korea Times reported that the shoots of several chaebols— as family business conglomerates are called — were waivers given. A government minister has urged global K-pop stars BTS, whose members are reaching the upper age limit, to be exception granted.
Not surprisingly, a growing number of South Korean men are disenchanted with the idea of military service. And 2021 Gallup Korea The survey found that 43% of respondents wanted military service to be voluntary, compared to 42% who thought it should be compulsory and 15% who did not give an answer. A survey last year by Hankook Research found that 62 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds — the prime conscription age — see military service as “waste of time.About 440 out of 1,000 respondents said military service has more disadvantages than advantages.
Read more: Bringing back the draft could stop America’s perpetual wars
Cho says that regular conscripts see military service as a kind of punishment that they must stoically endure—which is why they have little sympathy for the adversaries.
“Actual military service is perceived as punishment and as punishment and unfavorable,” he points out. “[Conscripts] he cannot be generous to those who do not receive the punishment. They can’t wait for everyone to be punished equally. This is their concept of justice.
The Department of Defense tells TIME it intends to resort to “public consensus” to address the issue. He’s already planning to survey the public on whether BTS should be spared military service.
For now, conscientious objectors feel they are getting more than their fair share of the burden.
Park Joo-Yong, 28, currently lives and works in Jinju Prison, about 270 miles southeast of Seoul. “I feel like I have to work for society,” he says, “but it doesn’t feel like it.”
He also feels insecure around hardened prisoners. “It makes me very nervous and I think about how I can get out,” says Park. “I hate it.”
—With reporting by Soo Jin Kim
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