Last Jehovah’s Witness in prison as conscientious objector

JW.ORG (10.03.2020) –  – After a struggle spanning nearly seven decades, Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea rejoiced over the happy events of February 28, 2019. On that day the last of their fellow believers imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service was released. Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful that South Korea’s judiciary now recognizes an individual’s right to conscientiously refuse military service and have the option to accept alternative civilian service.

Nearly a year later, the Supreme Court began clearing its postponed cases on conscientious objection. On February 13, 2020, the Court acquitted 108 of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and on February 27, it acquitted 210 more Witnesses. It came as a surprise, though, that it found one Witness, Jin-seong Bang, guilty of evasion of military service.

Mr. Bang was not yet one of Jehovah’s Witnesses when he completed basic military training in 2015 and was assigned to the Social Service Personnel (a form of alternative service). When he began a study of the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2016, he determined that he could not conscientiously continue to serve in the Social Service Personnel, since this work was supervised by the Military Manpower Administration Office. As a result of his conscientious objection, he was found guilty of evading military service by trial and appellate courts. When the Supreme Court finally decided on his case on February 27, it dismissed his appeal and allowed the guilty verdict of the lower courts to stand. Thus, on the same day that the Supreme Court determined that refusal of military service for reasons of conscience was no longer a crime, it reasoned that Mr. Bang’s refusal of military service was not based on a deep, firm, and sincere religious resolve as required by its jurisprudence.

On March 10, 2020, Mr. Bang began serving his 18-month sentence in the Seoul Detention Center. He is the only one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison in South Korea.

Implementation of Alternative Civilian Service

As for future conscientious objectors, the legislature passed the new law on alternative civilian service in December 2019. It should be implemented in the coming months and intends to allow young Christian men who are conscientious objectors the opportunity to perform a service that can contribute to Korean society in a meaningful way. According to international standards on alternative service, it must be “civilian in nature” and not under military control or supervision. The appropriate implementation of the law will be crucial to ensure that conscientious objectors have the opportunity to perform a genuine alternative civilian service.

Furthermore, according to international standards, alternative service should not be punitive. This was highlighted in the decision by the Constitutional Court in 2018 when it stated: “If the duration or severity of alternative service is excessive to the extent that even conscientious objectors find it difficult to perform such service, this would defeat the purpose of alternative service or degrade it to a mere form of punishment.”

If the law allows for control or supervision by the military, conscientious objectors who are Jehovah’s Witnesses would likely feel compelled to refuse this kind of alternative service. On the other hand, if the alternative service is not under the control and supervision of the military, every individual conscientious objector who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses will decide for himself whether to accept that service.

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