South Korean Jehovah's Witnesses start prison work terms

·3-min read
South Korean Jehovah's Witnesses and conscientious objectors to mandatory military service line up to enter a correctional facility to begin training as administrators, in Daejeon on October 26, 2020
South Korean Jehovah's Witnesses arrive for work as conscientious objectors

Dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea have arrived in jail as conscientious objectors - but, for the first time, they are not there as convicts.

Instead, they are now there as civilian administrators.

Military conscription is mandatory in South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North.

But a new scheme now means that those with faith-based or personal objections will not be convicted and jailed.

Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea have historically refused military conscription on moral and religious grounds, accepting 18 months or more in jail instead. Almost 20,000 church members have reportedly been jailed since 1950.

But a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 recognised the need for an alternative service - that did not involve the use of firearms or other weapons - for those with faith-based or conscientious objections.

After the ruling, charges against hundreds of men, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses who had refused to serve, were dropped.

The government released from prison hundreds of men who were already serving jail time and had exhausted all their appeals.

Rights groups say conscientious objectors who served prison time often face social stigma, and struggle to find employment after their jail sentence.

South Korean Jehovah's Witnesses who are conscientious objectors to mandatory military service, await an induction session at a correctional facility where they will begin training as administrators, in Daejeon on October 26, 2020
The 63 conscientious objectors began their training on Monday

The new scheme came into effect on Monday, when 63 conscientious objectors reported to a training centre in Daejeon to serve as prison administrators.

They will work there for three years, rather than the usual 21 months in the army, 23 months in the navy or 24 months in the air force required by military service.

"As a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, I believe it is my duty to interpret the Bible as it is written and follow the teachings of Jesus," Jang Kyung-jin told the AFP news agency.

Mr Jang cited a passage from the Bible, where Jesus informs his disciples not to use force to defend him as "all who take the sword will perish by the sword".

The 63 will work, eat and sleep in prisons, but will be separated from other inmates and given several weeks of annual leave.

While the Supreme Court ruling has been hailed as a victory by Jehovah's Witnesses, rights groups have argued that the hefty three-year work requirement is simply an alternative punishment.

How does military conscription work in South Korea?

South Korea shares a tense relationship - and one of the world's most heavily-fortified borders - with North Korea, and conscription is seen as key to the country's defence.

Able-bodied men in South Korea are required to serve in the military for up to 24 months by the time they are 28.

In rare cases, people can be granted an exemption from military service - such as athletes who win at the Olympics or the Asian Games, who are given exemptions for raising their country's global profile.

The South Korean government has given one-off exemptions to athletes too - for example, when the country hosted the 2002 World Cup and made it all the way to the semi-finals.

There is currently also debate over whether the K-pop superstars, such as the band BTS, should be exempt, or allowed to postpone military service so they can continue to perform during their peak years.

Under current rules, all seven members of BTS, one of the country's biggest ever exports, will be required to sign up within the next few years, by the time they turn 28.