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Significance of conscientious objection movement in Korea as a way of nonviolent direct action

Yongsuk Lee

It is only recently that the term "nonviolent direct action" appeared in Korean society. Still, there are many misunderstandings about nonviolence and many people find direct action as a way of protest bizarre. Conservative media suggest that while nonviolent direct action had its place during the dictatorship, it is not legitimate in a democracy. However, after last year's candlelight rallies against the government decision to import US beef, the call for nonviolence is now better known in Korean society.

There are several historical and complicated reasons which can explain why it has been difficult to accept the concept of nonviolence in Korean society. First of all, militarised and standardised culture has been working well with nationalism in people's everyday life. With the experience of living in the colonised country in the beginning of 20th century followed by the Korean War in 1950s, the state has become a dominant body with complete authority which cannot be criticised or restrained by civil society. Among Koreans, a major fear - originating from the longing to have a modern nation state - is of being recolonised as a result of war. The target against which people raged and which they feared has switched from Japanese imperialism to North Korea. 'The Republic of Korea' now poses as a defender of free democracy against North Korea.

From the protests against Japanese colonial rule to the protests against the Korean military dictatorship, 'counter violence' has been taken as a main method of protest against huge violence being done by the state authority. Nonviolence, in contrast, has been regarded as not taking a critical stance against a state authority or even as accepting the state's authority. The supposed inevitability of 'counter violence' gains momentum from the fact that some bourgeois nationalist groups preferred to compromise with rather than challenge Japanese colonial rule, or from the opportunism of some "moderates" who insist that their protest against the state be unarmed. Against this social and historical background, misconceptions have arisen that nonviolence is weak or passive.

Eun-gook held a press conference and declared his conscientious objection, on 19 Feb 2009. Photo : World Without WarEun-gook held a press conference and declared his conscientious objection, on 19 Feb 2009. Photo : World Without WarThese misunderstandings of nonviolence resulted in a lack of reflection on the violence that exists within people themselves. While criticising the violence of the state, other forms of violence caused by campaign groups for democratization were ignored. A typical image of the democratization movement was of physically fit men fighting against the police in streets, which just looked like a parade of armed forces. Different types of violence occurring within movement groups, which were actually jeopardising democracy, could not be mentioned allegedly as they would harm the bigger cause of resisting state violence.

In the past, several kinds of nonviolent resistance did take place, such as university students' protests of refusing to be sent to a frontline army in 1980s and declarations of conscience made by some active duty soldiers and riot police who were mobilised to suppress demonstrations in the 1980s and 1990s. It was not until 2000 that it became possible to discuss nonviolence publicly as a life principle. The movement for the right of conscientious objection paved the way for nonviolence and pacifism to be openly discussed. People, for the first time, began to question the armed forces in different ways and realise every human being has the right to refuse unjust orders and rules based on one's own conscience. Many young people who would be conscripted started thinking about the role and meaning of the military. Among them were some people who couldn't avoid their inner voice of conscience and decided to object to their military service.

Of course, the initiation of conscientious objection movement was merely one step for undermining the stable foundation of militarism and nationalism. Still, South Korean society seemed to be the same as before in terms of infringing the rights of minority groups, and the state's authority would keep working against the rights of the poor in more sophisticated ways. Campaign groups also didn't get rid of their own habits such as physical violence in protests and authoritarian way of decision making. Nonetheless, with the advent of feminism and ecology combined with pacifism, we noticed some slow but positive changes. People became aware of the links between violence and democracy or between war and the military. These small but noticeable changes have been disseminated, giving people a deep inspiration.

As a result, quite a few different nonviolent actions have come out. During the protest against the US base expansion, many activists felt that the whole atmosphere of protest had changed. Furthermore, nonviolent direct action was getting more popular in the candlelight rallies against the government's decision to import US beef. A slogan of nonviolence was the most popular among the people in the candlelight demonstrations. At that time, people would tease the police by making fun of them with their creative actions, which actually made a sharp contrast with the police's intimidation and violence. In a similar vein, people have become more independent from the conservative media and the politicians.

Yet, nonviolent direct actions in Korea are still developing with a lot of trial and error. Nonviolence is often considered simply to be not more than anti-violence or sometimes is trapped in a malicious frame designed by the government and conservative media. The lack of understanding and ground work for a nonviolent direct action more often than not leads to a risky situation. And nonviolence is sometimes accepted only as a strategy for an action, which enables another authoritarian way of making decision such as people getting ordered from above to just take a certain nonviolent action.

Many different opinions on nonviolent direct action are just beginning to arise in the Korean society, and there is no doubt that experiments will continue. Nevertheless, already nonviolent direct action including conscientious objection campaign is slowly and constantly gaining people's sympathy, as are 'peace' and 'nonviolence', and the number of people who, based on their own life, commit themselves to protest against social injustice in a nonviolent way is increasing.

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