“Men and Citizens:” What it Means to be a Conscientious Objector in South Korea

Written by: Kelly Jarman (ISC, member)
Edited by: Dae-Han Song (ISC, English chief editor)
Copy-edited by: Ned Darlington (ISC, editor)

Park Seok-jin conscientiously objects to conscription as an anti-riot police repressing mass movements in a 1991 press conference. Source:    Voice of People

Park Seok-jin conscientiously objects to conscription as an anti-riot police repressing mass movements in a 1991 press conference. Source: Voice of People

Recently, singer Steve Yoo is making news trying to return to South Korea after being banned from entry to South Korea for avoiding military service by renouncing his citizenship 17 years ago. Previously, in Nov. of 2018, the South Korean constitutional course ruled that a conscientious objector[1] must be provided with an alternative form for fulfilling their military service.

Since the beginning of the Republic of Korea, conscription has been a feature of people’s lives. Men have interrupted careers, families, and lives to serve two years in the military training and preparing for a possible war.  Men that have to do it dread it. Men that have completed it see it as a rite of passage. Its impact goes beyond Korean men and to all of society. The strict hierarchies in South Korea’s large companies resemble military institutions and reflect their birth from military dictatorship. Korean companies regularly ask men about their military service with conscientious objectors denied government jobs due to their criminal record. Furthermore, the South Korean military indoctrinates conscripts that Korean labor unions and progressive movements are part of a Democratic People’s Republic of Korea strategy to undermine the South Korean government (Joo 85). 

Conscription has shaped South Korean manhood, citizenship, and society. As mandatory military service is reformed by the Moon government and conscientious objectors make headlines, notions of manhood and citizenship are challenged in Korea. 

South Korea’s mandatory military service began under Japanese colonization, before the United States (US) occupation and division of the Korean peninsula. Japan began conscripting Koreans on Dec. 1944. Previously, the Japanese refused to arm Koreans for fear of armed rebellions. However, heavy casualties, and its imperial ambitions stretched Japanese forces thin. From Dec. 1944 to the end of the war, 110,000 Korean conscripts served in the Japanese Army and Navy. The Japanese framed conscription as an honor and right to strengthen Koreans. This discourse continued well after Japanese occupation as Syngman Rhee continued justifying military service with the same rhetoric of honor and right. 

Secondly, discourse around South Korean military service was shaped by the Cold War and US occupation immediately following Japanese colonialism. Fearing a large military presence would trigger nuclear war with the USSR, Truman reduced the size of the military forces (i.e. US soldiers and conscripted men) in South Korea. The South Korean military was capped at 100,000 soldiers. Munitions were also limited to keep Syngman Rhee from attacking the DPRK. Nonetheless, conscription was still justified with the threat of North Korea and Communism which still continues today, albeit in weakened form after greater rapprochement with North Korea. 

As the Korean War turned into a stalemate, American public opinion turned against the war’s high casualties. Rather than rejecting the war, the dissatisfaction focused on US casualties. Dwight E. Eisenhower campaigned on reducing the number of US casualties in Korea by replacing them with Korean ones. 720,000 Korean soldiers would be needed to replace the supposedly better equipped and trained American ones (a ratio of two Korean to one American soldier). The arrangement proved mutually beneficial: South Korea received military aid, which it quickly repurposed or sold; the US withdrew most of its soldiers. Today, South Korea’s military consists of 600,000 soldiers: 250,000 career soldiers and the rest conscripted. 

Since the Korean War, over 19,300 have been imprisoned as conscientious objectors. The total number of objectors is unknown since many objectors quietly avoid military service by deliberately disqualifying themselves through self-mutilation or by traveling abroad.

Last November, South Korea’s Supreme Court has ruled that conscientious objectors should be provided an alternative to military service. However, a conscientious objector is defined as someone who has held opposition to military service for a long time and has proven that their convictions are “deep, firm and true.” An objection based on religion requires evidence that their beliefs affect every thought and action. Thus, despite protests from Buddhists and Christians, the overwhelming number of conscientious objectors are Jehovah’s Witnesses whose religion explicitly rejects military service. 

Yet, in society, conscientious objection is more expansive than religious opposition. During the early nineties, an anti-riot police conscript named Park Seokjin refused military service based on his opposition to repressing Korean mass protests. Students who took part in the democracy movements during the eighties and early nineties refused to be conscripted as they would have to serve alongside American soldiers. Both incidents are examples of Koreans questioning the state and challenging military service based on convictions beyond individual religious beliefs. 

Refusing military service is a contentious issue and is seen as betraying one’s South Korean citizenship and fellow Koreans. So powerful is the feeling against objectors that one of its most prominent objectors, Oh Taeyang, was branded and treated a traitor by society. In 1997, Korean liberal parties won an election after it was revealed that the sons of conservative candidates deliberately lost weight to disqualify from military service (Joo 97). For both Korean liberals and conservatives, military service is a fundamental part of citizenship. 

Citizenship and Manhood
Post-democratization, the shared sense of suffering and duty is one of the foundations of South Korean citizenship: universal conscription is supposedly equal. The South Korean government emphasizes the equality of military service in uniting people in a divided nation (Choi 6). While originally intending to do away with military service, Liberal South Korean governments have instead focused on implementing stricter regulations for exemptions from military service to prevent wealthy families from shielding their children from serving. Additionally, liberal South Korean governments implemented laws restricting dual-citizens from avoiding military service as wealthy Korean families purposefully gave birth to their children abroad to gain dual-citizenship (Choi 9). Dual-citizens are pressured to do their military service to avoid discrimination and prove that they are worthy of citizenship (Choi 12). 

Military service turns boys  into “men and citizens.” Military service is a rite of passage that bonds men and differentiates them from women who are not required to do military service. During military service, men are required to be strong and masculine and displaying femininity is dangerous. Despite the manliness of military service, many men have become bitter about this “reverse-discrimination.” Korean women have organized symbolic rejections of military service to show their solidarity with men who are conscripted. In addition to requiring men to be tough and follow a strict form of masculinity, military service also limits gender identity. 

Military service is based upon a strict dichotomy of man versus woman in which sexual and gender minorities don’t often fit. The government uses “gender identity disorder,” and “sexual preference disorder,” to assess whether recruits qualify for military service. “Sodomy” is banned by the Korean military, even when soldiers are off- duty, and trans people are classed as having a disorder making it clear that the ROK military bans sexual and gender minorities from serving openly. The military doesn’t accept gender minorities’ identity and defines their gender strictly by genitalia. To be classified as women, gender minorities with testicles must have them removed. 

Korean gender and sexual minorities have protested the current conscription laws both for not being allowed to serve and for objection to serving. Sexual and gender minorities don’t fit the strict definition of conscientious objectors. A Korean gender minority activist refused conscription by stating, “The woman inside me refuses to be a soldier.” Rather than objecting based on religious or political beliefs, the activist objected based on her gender identity which she saw as being incompatible with military service. Her statement challenges the Korean Supreme Court’s strict definition of a conscientious objector. 

Conscientious objectors in South Korea are made up of many diverse movements that are outside of the strict definition used by the South Korean Supreme Court. Conscientious objectors have objected to military service based upon opposition to America’s occupation, their gender identity and various religious beliefs. Military service creates men and citizens through a shared burden that is undermined by anyone who refuses. The looming prospect of alternative service and greater recognition for conscientious objectors leaves uncertain what was thought to be the immutable connection military service had with manhood and citizenship. 

Joo, Hyosung: South Korean Men and the Military: The Influence of Conscription on the Political Behavior of South Korean Males 

Choi, Hee Jung; Kim, Nora Hui-Jung: Of Soldiers and Citizens: Shallow Marketisation, Military Service and Citizenship in Neo-Liberal South Korea

[1] The UN Human Rights Committee defines conscientious objectors as those that have a right to object to the use of lethal force when such practice is in conflict with “the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one’s religion or belief.”