Since 1953 the Republic of South Korea—one of Asia’s most advanced democracies—has severely punished #conscientious objectors. In 64 years, more than 19,000 young male Jehovah’s Witnesses there have served prison terms totaling more than 36,300 years of accumulated confinement. Presently 393 are serving sentence, typically 18 months to two years. “The New York Times” says 600-700 go to prison annually and comprise more than 90 percent of imprisoned conscientious objectors worldwide. This policy needlessly harms society in general, not just conscientious objectors:

    • Society foots incarceration costs for prisoner upkeep.
      • It loses the valuable alternative work these prisoners could perform as community service.
        • The national economy loses millions of tax dollar revenues that these healthy young men cannot contribute by holding gainful employment.
          • Then there’s the incalculable emotional devastation to each prisoner’s family.

          The struggle to recognize conscientious objection

          At a rare juncture in South Korea’s history, according to “The Korea Herald,” both its Supreme Court and its Constitutional Court are dealing simultaneously with conscientious objection.

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          Various lower-court guilty verdicts have risen through the appellate levels for final judgment. Under scrutiny is whether conscientious objectors should be criminally punished by imprisonment for their stance of strict neutrality. South Korea’s Constitution is also under the microscope, due to pressure by numerous international entities, including the United Nations, which has urged South Korea’s government to adopt legislation that allows for alternative nonmilitary community service.

          The conscientious objector’s view

          To the conscientious objector, #murder is murder. They hate it. Being ordered to murder doesn’t make them hate it any less. Yet theirs is more than a question of personal taste. They believe that no one—not even a high-ranking official barking orders—can give them, or anyone, the right to take another human’s life.

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          Many believe a Supreme Authority condemns such permission-giving, even in times of war. And we need to keep that view in mind when figuring out what to do about and how to treat those who will not—for moral reasons that form the core of their very being—commit murder.

          Far from cowardly

          It’s easy to think of conscientious objectors as cowards who shirk their patriotic duty and flee from danger. But that’s not the case at all. Conscientious objectors face their responsibility; they don’t dodge it. When the Law issues an order, they obey it. If they can’t, they confront the Law through the proper channels, seeking recourse that allows them to discharge their duty without murdering. When their only options are—in their view—to murder or to disobey the law, they do what they are convinced is the morally right thing to do, knowing full well the grave consequences they will face: loss of liberty, sometimes loss of life.

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          That takes considerable courage. Only the brave retain their dignity. Cowards have none to start with and thus none to lose upon fleeing.

          Repeated punishment

          Particularly egregious is South Korea’s treatment of Dong-hyuk Shin, who successfully completed military service in 2005 with honorable discharge. That automatically enrolled him in the reserve forces. After studying the Bible, his conscience moved him to change his position regarding military training and service. When summoned in 2006 for reserve forces training, he did not flee. Instead, he informed officials of his new status as a conscientious objector and one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Military officials ignored his objection—to them, it simply did not exist.

          Enough is enough

          Altogether, from March 2006 to December 2013, the military summoned Mr. Shin 118 times for reservist training. He has been prosecuted and convicted 49 times, has made trial and appellate court appearances 69 times and has received 35 court verdicts. The Court certainly could better spend its time and resources pursuing true criminals and leave Mr. Shin alone. Courts have fined him more than U.S. $13,300. Six times he has been sentenced to prison terms of six months or longer, later replaced by conditional sentences, including 200 hours of community service. Due to all the court appearances, he has had to change employment seven times. The stress has taken a physical toll on his strength and health. His mother has suffered emotional distress due to all the turmoil, and this has intensified Mr. Shin’s own suffering.

          The end of all wars

          John F. Kennedy wrote to a Navy friend: “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” The inverse of that perceptive prediction is fascinating: When everyone views warfare as murder and conscientiously objects to murder in all its circumstances, then all wars will cease. Warriors may equally dislike taking human lives. Yet their government gives them permission to do so with impunity in certain circumstances. It is the conscientious objector who steels himself (or herself) in face of the State’s demands, to follow the dictates of conscience.

          A winning policy, guaranteed

          South Korea’s move to adopt alternative nonmilitary service for conscientious objection would be a win-win situation: The nation would benefit from free community services rendered by productive members of society; tax revenues would accrue as conscientious objectors would also be gainfully employed instead of behind bars; with starkly fewer prison inmates, government spending on corrections would drop; and thousands of Korean families would be relieved of the stress and trauma that a family member’s unnecessary imprisonment inflicts on them. International entities worldwide are keenly anticipating the move South Korea will make as a world-leading democracy. #Jehovah's Witnesses