South Korea: Military service frozen at 21 months

Chosun Ilbo reported on 22 December 2010 that compulsory military service will be frozen at 21 months, and will not be reduced to 18 months, as originally planned. The step, which is a response to the mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula, puts the brakes on a gradual reduction of conscription from 24 months to 18 months for the Army, 20 months for the Navy and 21 months for the Air Force, which was announced in September 2007.

"The Presidential Committee on Defense Advancement proposed to President Lee Myung-bak that the term of mandatory service be restored to 24 months, but it has been decided to freeze the term at the current 21 months to minimize the disadvantage of future conscripts and prevent a weakening of the military's combat capability," a Defense Ministry official said according to Chosun Ilbo.

The Korea Times reported that the Korean government has revised the Military Service Act as part of measures to overcome the shortage of troops and prevent discrimination or preferential treatment based on the color of skin. All able South Korean men, regardless of their skin color or ethnic background, will be subject to mandatory military duty starting on 1 January 2011, as those who look distinctively from a multiethnic background will no longer be exempted from conscription. Previously, the military excluded half-Koreans with distinctively non-Asian features from mandatory duty over fears that they would encounter culture shock and face difficulties in adjusting to military life.

Separately, in a bid to curb military dodgers, the military has decided to change the age restriction for military duty from 31 to 36. For those found to have attempted military dodging, it will extend the age limit to 38 as many Koreans intentionally stay overseas and renounce their citizenship to avoid the draft.

In addition, the military will extend the current five weeks of basic military training for new recruits to eight weeks and intensify the level of their physical and psychological training from next year. Enlisted men will receive military training on Saturdays as well.

More conscientious objectors

Moon MyungjinMoon Myungjin

Meanwhile, more political conscientious objectors are declaring their objection. On 14 December 2010, Myungjin Moon declared his objection in a press conference. In his declaration, he writes: "Going to jail instead of enlisting in the army has been one of the most crucial issues in my life. There is no one specific moment when I have chosen to refuse military service, nor is it easy to explain the reasons for my objection in simple terms. One thing for sure is that it has become harder and harder to convince myself that I should take up arms as a soldier.

Myungjin Moon is well known to War Resisters' International. He volunteered for three months in the WRI office in London from January to March 2009, where he worked mostly on a documentation on South Korea, and helped to organise the 15 May events in South Korea in 2009. He also participated in several WRI seminars and conferences, among others the WRI Triennial in Paderborn, Germany, in 2006, the Nonviolence Training Exchange in Bilbao in October 2008, and the International Conference in Ahmedabad, India, in January 2010.

Also, Ahn Jeehwan refuses military service as an anarchist.

Both face eighteen months in prison for their conscientious objection, although the Human Rights Committee has repeatedly stated that convicting and sentencing conscientious objectors amounts to a violation of article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (see CO-Update No 27, February 2007; CO-Update No 56, May/June 2010). Presently, a new complaint to the South Korean Constitutional Court is still pending (see CO-Update No 51, October 2009).

The majority of South Korea's conscientious objectors are members of the Jehovah's Witnesses. However, a small political and antimilitarist movement has been emerging since 2001, and several of these political conscientious objectors went to prison too. According to the Korean CO organisation World Without War, 965 conscientious objectors were serving prison sentences in November 2010.

Sources: The Korea Times: Biracial male citizens subject to conscription, 30 December 2010; The Chosun Ilbo: Mandatory Military Service Frozen at 21 Months, 22 December 2010; Human Rights Committee: Communications Nos. 1593 to 1603/2007, CCPR/C/98/D/1593-1603/2007, 14 April 2010