For the men of South Korea, the movie Hacksaw Ridge (2016) must have had a different meaning. Watching Andrew Garfield struggling between his will to protect his beloved nation and his religious conscience restricting him from self-arming, has indeed brought up some thoughts within the country regarding a strict conscription system. Undoubtedly times have changed, along with people’s perceptions but the fact that the old system still remains intact has started to puzzle some people.
When Judge Lee Hyeong Geol made his judgement, the courtroom was filled with shock. Another case of conscientious objection has been sentenced complete innocence. Lee described with certainty that, “Unilateral punishment lacking effort to understand the faithful, is a violation of the freedom of conscience, clearly specified in the constitution.” Recently, the number of judges who share the perspective of Judge Lee is increasing, and more conscientious objectors are declared not guilty. This can be viewed as proof of the need of discussion about a more humane alternative to conscription.
After Oh Tae Yang objected to fulfill his military duty on religious grounds in 2001, there have been many arguments on the subject in Korea. However, regardless of the cries of the people who had to serve sentences merely because of following their conscience, the introduction of an alternative has been stalled until now. A lot has changed during the 16 years spent in vein, and the repulsion against conscientious objection has become more and more absurd. Simply considering the change that has been carried out recently, can prove its insanity.
ove its insanity. To start with, the old-fashioned law of South Korea is utterly ignoring the international tendency related to this matter. Currently, 31 of the 83 countries regarding a conscription system allow objecting military service for religious reasons. This number includes countries like Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Israel. There have also been recommendations from the United Nations (UN) to allow conscientious objection. The 2012 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council has firmly insisted to construct an alternative, but South Korea has ignored the directive.
That Korea is a divided country, unstable under the threat of North Korea, does seem to support the government’s current position. However, it is to be remembered that modern warfare has changed. Victory is no longer decided by the quantitative size of a nation’s army. Weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear bombs, have changed the dynamics of war.
Questions against the realization of conscientious objection can also be easily answered. Considering potential inequality with those who have to fulfill their military duties normally—serving two years in the Korean Army or other branches of the service—the length of the alternative service can be adjusted. Taiwan, for example, initially required those who chose alternative service to complete 11 more months of service. However, when the system showed no signs of failure, this requirement was dropped. If Korea, like Taiwan, started the change gradually, from only the reserve force duties to all military duty, and from a longer service time to an equal one, the system could be successfully adapted here.