South Korea offers an alternative to compulsory military service

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A strong believer in Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jang Kyung-jin was prepared to end up behind bars rather than serving in the South Korean military. After a historic court decision, it is as an administrator, and not as a prisoner, that he will take charge of the prison on Monday.

South Korea is technically still at war with the North. Compulsory military service thus provides the bulk of the troops in the South, which faces a North Korean army of 1.2 million soldiers.

Any valid South Korean must serve for 18 months before the age of 30, a necessary step which, although sometimes badly felt, creates unwavering links with other conscripts.

Avoiding this duty in a conformist South Korean society can have professional repercussions and lead to lasting social stigma.

Over the past decades, tens of thousands of conscientious objectors, including many Jehovah’s Witnesses, have agreed to pay a heavy price: 18 months in prison or more.

“As a follower of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I believe that it is my duty to interpret the Bible as it is written and to follow the teachings of Jesus”, explains to AFP Mr. Jang, father of three children .

South Korea offers an alternative to compulsory military service

In a soft voice, he quotes the gospel according to Matthew in which Jesus tells his disciples not to use force to defend him.

“It would have been the greatest honorable act to defend the Son of God, but Jesus told his disciples not to (do it). I came to the conclusion that the violence could in no way be justified, ”explains this man who practices traditional medicine.

For years, the idea of ​​offering conscientious objectors civilian service has been the subject of much controversy.

But current President Moon Jae-in, who did his military service in the Special Forces in the 1970s, promised the creation of a civilian service during his 2017 presidential campaign.

The following year, the Supreme Court ruled that moral and religious objections were valid grounds for refusing to conscription.

“A first step”

This program offering the possibility of performing civilian service comes into effect on Monday.

That day, Mr. Jang and 62 other conscientious objectors will travel to Daejeon, south of Seoul, where, for three years, they will serve as prison administrators.

They will receive the same pay as the other conscripts. The Ministry of Justice qualified this device as “the first step towards the balance between conscience and military duty”.

In addition to Olympic medalists and champions of the Asian Games, as well as the winners of certain international classical music competitions, the obligation to conscription applies to all healthy men.

This constraint currently hangs over the seven members of the group BTS, international king of K-pop, which brings billions of dollars to the twelfth economy in the world.

Steve Yoo, a popular K-pop singer in the 1990s, took US citizenship shortly before being called up, automatically losing his Korean citizenship.

This decision aroused the anger of the population and he was quickly banned from entering the territory, a measure still in force.

Across the globe, Jehovah’s Witnesses are most commonly known for refusing blood transfusions or for going door-to-door to recruit disciples.

In South Korea, it is their refusal to do military service or to pledge allegiance to the nation that marks the most spirits.

Since 1950, 19,353 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been convicted of refusing to conscription, a total of more than 36,000 years spent behind bars, according to the church.

Among those former detainees, Lee Bit-nam, a member of Mr. Jang’s congregation, imprisoned in 2015. However, like all other conscientious objectors, his criminal record was erased after a court ruling.

At 30, this auto mechanic says he was the target of mockery from the guards and other prisoners, but never doubted his choice.

“I realized that God does not want us to train for war or engage in war,” says Lee, who says his “faith only got stronger when I read the Bible.” .

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