Inside South Korea’s Harsh Alternative to Conscription

AKim Hyemin was a South Korean conscientious objector who fought for conscription for many years. The 28-year-old belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses—a Christian denomination that takes a principled stance against war. They refuse to perform the minimum 18-months of military service that is required for any able South Korean man between the ages 18 and 35.

Kim was found not guilty of violating the conscription laws in 2016 Two years later, South Korea’s Supreme Court cited the experience of Kim’s co-religionists in its ruling that conscientious objection to military service was not a crime.

The court’s finding put the onus on lawmakers to draw up an alternative to the draft—which now exists. Kim refused to leave when Kim was summoned by the Military Manpower Administration.

“I told them that I have no intention of reporting,” he tells TIME from Gwangju, a city of 1.5 million people some 167 miles south of the capital Seoul.

Why? The alternative doesn’t look all that different to jail.

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In return for being exempted from military service, South Korea’s conscientious objectors are expected to work in the country’s prison system. They’re typically rotated between jobs in prison laundries and kitchens, with stints of administrative duty. They also serve 36 months—twice as long as military conscripts. Although they are given a few weeks’ leave, they have to live in the prisons, where their movements are regulated.

Almost 900 men are currently subject to such orders, many of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to defense ministry figures, another 1,485 men who are eligible were waiting for their call to alternative service. It is not surprising that objectors believe they have been given a punishment and no other way to serve their country.

Kim is scheduled to appear in court for refusing service at a correctional facility. He wants his case to draw attention to the controversial treatment being meted out to South Korea’s conscientious objectors.

“I’m hoping that the trial will improve the current situation,” he says.

On February 7, 2022 young South Korean men took part in a medical exam for conscription at Seoul Regional Military Manpower Administration. South Korea has a system where almost every healthy male citizen must serve in the military.

JUNG YEON/JE/AFP via Getty Images

South Korea’s draft is best avoided

While an armistice agreement was in place on the Korean peninsula from 1953 to the present, technically the South still has a war against the nuclear-armed North. Therefore, conscription is very serious. A public list of potential evaders is kept by the government. Applicants for conscientious objector status endure intense scrutiny of their private lives—having to satisfy investigators, for example, that they have never played violent video games.

Before the alternative to military service was offered, objectors were jailed, with some 19,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses thrown behind bars over the years for their stance. Some were tortured or beaten during the period of martial law, which was established in 1970s. The denomination members are still considered social pariahs.

Other people who are able to escape service often face opprobrium. Yoo Seungjun, a K-pop star from the Nineties, was scheduled to be drafted in 2002. However, he renounced citizenship right before he was called up. Yoo was banned from ever setting foot in South Korea after a massive public outcry.

In 2004, MC Mong, one of South Korea’s most successful television personalities and hip-hop artists, had 10 teeth removed. The artist says it was a necessary dental operation that led to a legitimate exemption from military service—but his career never recovered.

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Although the law allows civilian service in “areas of public interest” besides prisons, for now work in correctional facilities appears to be the only option. Only those serving may leave the jails they are assigned on specific days. There is an enforced curfew at 9:30 PM. Phones and any other device must be returned during work hours.

South Korean rights groups have criticised the government of South Korea for its punitive image. Amnesty International says that South Korea’s 36 months is the longest period of civilian service in the world. (By comparison, the Council of Europe has set a “reasonable” maximum length for civilian service at 1.5 times the duration of military conscription.)

In reply to questions from TIME, a defense ministry spokesperson said improvements to alternative service could only come “after the system is settled stably.”

For objectors, the three-year absence from circulation is causing personal and professional setbacks.

“I worry about when I get back to society, whether there will be difficulties,” says Kim Jin-wook, about to begin his third year of work in Mokpo prison, a few miles outside of Gwangju. He speaks wisily of Taiwan where both conscription and civil service can be completed in just twelve months.


Conscientious objectors of mandatory military service in South Korea, South Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses are awaiting an induction session in a correctional institution where they will start working. This is expected to take place in Daejeon, on October 26, 2020.

ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

Changes in attitude towards conscription

To be sure, it isn’t just conscientious objectors who are facing difficulties. Many Korean draftees speak of the abuse that comes with the military’s deeply ingrained “barracks culture.” Bullying and sexual assault have led to suicides and shootings.

Cho Kyu Kyu-suk, a Seoul-based coordinator of the Center for Military Human Rights in Korea (a non-governmental organization that offers counseling for traumatized veterans of the armed forces), is a counselor at this center. He argues that an overhaul of South Korea’s military system is overdue.

“In order to better the alternative service, we also have to improve the active service environment,” says Cho.

It is always hotly debated who gets out of military service. Many people claim the elite can work the conscription system. There are many theories. Korea TimesIt was reported that the scions from several Chaebols—as family-run business conglomerates are called—have been given waivers. A government minister has called for global K-pop stars BTS—whose members are reaching the upper limit of drafting age—to be granted an exemption.

A growing number of South Korean men have become disenchanted about the concept of conscription. Gallup Korea conducted a survey in 2021 and found that 43% of respondents preferred military service be voluntary. 42% felt it should have to be mandatory, while 15% did not respond. A survey last year from Hankook Research found that 62% of those aged 18 to 29—the prime age for conscription—saw military service as a “waste of time.” Some 440 of 1,000 respondents said military service had more disadvantages than advantages.

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Cho says that regular conscripts regard military service as a kind of punishment to be stoically borne—which is why they have little sympathy for objectors.

“Active military service is accepted as punitive and as a penalty and disadvantageous,” he points out. “[Conscripts]They cannot show mercy to those who don’t get their punishment. They want everyone to be punished equally. That’s their concept of fairness.”

The defense ministry tells TIME it intends to resort to “social consensus” to handle the issue. The defense ministry already has plans to poll the public on whether BTS should not be conscripted.

Conscientious objectors believe that for the moment they’re getting more than what is fair.

Park Ju-young (28 years old) is currently living in Jinju prison. It’s about 170 mi southeast of Seoul. “I feel that I should be working for society,” he says, “but it doesn’t feel that way.”

Park also felt unsafe living in close quarters alongside hardened inmates. “It makes me very nervous and I think about how I can get away,” Park says. “I hate it.”

Soo Jin Kim reports

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