PSPD in English UN Advocacy 2018-11-14   2493

[UN Advocacy] South Korea Must Introduce Alternative Service that is Compatible with International Human Rights Standards

South Korea Must Introduce Alternative Service that is Compatible with International Human Rights Standards

Submitted by Amnesty International Korea, Lawyers for a Democratic Society – Minbyun, Military Human Rights Center Korea, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and World Without War


We are submitting this communication to inform the UN Special Rapporteurs on the current discussion on introducing alternative service for conscientious objectors in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). After the recent ruling at the Constitutional Court which ask the South Korean government to introduce alternative services until 31 December 2019, the Government formed a working group to draft a bill for alternative service. However, the draft bill proposed by the Government working group does not conform to international human rights standards due to its punitive elements according to media reports and informed sources. This clearly goes against the recommendations given to the Government by several UN human rights mechanisms on introducing alternative service for conscientious objectors. The Government plans to announce the bill for the introduction of alternative service in the next few weeks and it is imperative that this bill is in line with international human rights standards.



1. Background


South Korea operates a system of military conscription under which all male citizens should serve in the military for 21 months. Unfortunately, there is no alternative service for conscientious objectors even though recommendations have been repeatedly made to South Korean government by various UN human rights mechanisms to introduce such service. Every year, hundreds of men have been to prison for exercising their freedom of thought, conscience or religion or belief in the South Korea) (see Table 1. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than 19,300 conscientious objectors have been imprisoned in the country over the last 68 years, an accumulative total of 36,800 years of confinement.


            <Table 1 : Conscientious Objectors in South Korea Since 2009>


                                                       (Unit : persons)



-July 2018






















Jehovah’s Witness












Other Personal belief














2. Current situation at the Courts


The Constitutional Court ruled on 28 June 2018 that Article 5(1) of the Military Service Act did not conform to the Constitution as it did not include provisions for alternative service for conscientious objectors to military service. This ruling gives the South Korean government until 31 December 2019 to introduce alternative service. This ruling was followed by a Supreme Court ruling on 1 November 2018 in which it ruled in a full bench decision by 9-4 that a Jehovah’s Witness objecting to military service for reasons of conscience could not be punished under Article 88(1) of the Military Service Act. The ruling deems conscientious objection a “justifiable ground” for failing to enlist or comply with a call up within a prescribed period after receiving notification.


At the time of the Supreme Court ruling, approximately 100 individuals remained imprisoned. This ruling also followed a total of 118 acquittals of conscientious objectors at lower courts since 2004 and is expected to have an influence on over 966 cases pending at courts of all levels including over 200 pending at the Supreme Court. It is unclear at the time of writing what steps the government intends to take to address their release and provide remedy for all of those affected such as through pardon, expunging criminal records and/or compensation.


Importantly, in a supplementary opinion submitted to the majority opinion by Justices Park Jung-hwa, Kim Seon- soo and Noh Jeong-hee they write that: “the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by South Korea has the same force as domestic law according to Article 6, Clause 1, of the Constitution and can serve directly as a norm for adjudication.”



3. Problems of the Government Draft’s Bill


Following the 28 June Constitutional Court ruling, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) formed a working group to draft a bill for alternative service. The working group was composed of staff from the MND, Military Manpower Administration (MMA) (which sits under the MND) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). In addition, a consultative committee of civilian experts was formed composed of academics, civil society organization representatives and a representative from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK). The work of this consultative committee was coordinated by a representative from the MoJ and a representative from the MMA.


A total of seven bills for the establishment of alternative service have been submitted by lawmakers to date, including four bills submitted by Democracy and Peace Party, Bareun Mirae Party and Liberty Korea Party lawmakers following the 28 June Constitutional Court ruling which were far more punitive in nature than previous bills in particular in terms of the nature of work (i.e. mine removal) and length (i.e. 2 times the length of military service or longer) 


A public consultation hearing was held jointly by the MND, MoJ and MMA on 4 October in which possible options for alternative service were presented. In particular, it focused on three aspects: 1) length of service, 2) form of service (whether or not those performing alternative service would be housed on site or be able to commute), and 3) field of service Press reports and communication with advisory committee members indicate that the bill when proposed to the National Assembly will have the following elements that fall of short of international human rights standards and law and are likely to be punitive and discriminatory:


1. Length of alternative service set at twice that of military service with on-site shared accommodation; 

2. Service limited to work within correctional facilities; 

3. Evaluation committee for assessment of applications to be established under the Ministry of National


4. Applications for conscientious objection will not be accepted during military service.



4. Suggested Recommendations


  • South Korea should introduce forms of alternative service for conscientious objectors that are of a non-combatant or civilian character and not of a punitive nature, and compatible with the reasons for objection as recommended by the UN human rights bodies. 
  • Alternative service should be of a comparable length to military service and any additional length must be based on reasonable and objective criteria. The proposal by the Government to set the length at twice that of military service would make this the longest alternative service in the world. At its longest,alternative service should not exceed 1.5 times the length of military service consistent with recommendations from the Human Rights Committee. 
  • The decision regarding the recognition of the right of conscientious objection should be taken by an administrative civilian authority entirely separate from the military authorities and its composition should guarantee maximum independence and impartiality. 
  • South Korea should introduce various forms of alternative service for conscientious objectors which are compatible with the reasons for conscientious objection as recommended by the Commission on Human Rights. 
  • Recognizing that a conscientious objection can arise at any time including before, during and after military service, if there is no complete exemption, the authorities should make alternative service accessible to all those with a genuine objection at any time including during military service.


5. Contact Details


  • Tom Rainey-Smith, Campaigns Team, Amnesty International Korea / Email: Phone: +82-10-6379-2273
  • Yong-Suk Lee, Conscientious Objection Team, World Without War / Email: Phone: +82-10-2878-0851



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