By Jun Ji-hye
Debate is heating up over whether the nation should introduce alternative military service after an appellate court on Tuesday acquitted three men accused of refusing to be drafted for religious reasons.
The three men were indicted for violating the military service law after having refused mandatory service out of their religious conviction that rejects war and murder. One man was found not guilty in a lower court, which led to an appeal by the prosecution, which was turned down by the appellate court. For the two other men, the appellate court overturned a guilty verdict given to them at a lower court.
It was the first time that an appellate court ruled in favor of conscientious objectors, while lower courts have given mixed rulings in multiple cases.
"Personal conscience and religion is constitutionally guaranteed rights and cannot be punished," the court said in its ruling.
The court also said the international community tends to recognize the rights to the conscientious objection of military service, noting that "A social consensus has been formed in Korea as well for the need to introduce alternative military service."
All able-bodied Korean men are mandated by law to serve in the military for about two years.
Alternative service allows conscientious objectors to do community service or participate in disaster-relief missions instead of serving in the military. Some European countries including Norway, which maintain a conscription system, allow such alternative service.
Supporters of the alternative service say that the country should recognize the minority and respect their faith.
"Without having alternatives, it is improper to force everyone to serve in the military and do things related to war," lawyer Sohn Soo-ho said during a radio appearance, Wednesday. "I agree with the latest ruling of the appellate court. It is about time we take a step forward in the discussion."
But those who are opposed to the idea say that it is too vague to decide what is conscientious and what is not.
"Criteria for deciding conscientious objectors are vague," said lawyer Roh Young-hee. "We need to think about what would happen when everyone wants alternative service amid the challenging security situation of this nation."
The Ministry of National Defense also took a cautious attitude about the issue, saying that the alternative service could decrease the morale of soldiers in active service.
"There is also a possibility that the system could be abused by draft evaders," said Col. Na Seng-yong, the ministry's deputy spokesman.
The ministry also said in a parliamentary inspection session held earlier this month that it is "premature" to introduce alternative service when the national security situation is considered.
The number of those who have refused the compulsory service for religious reasons since 2006 is about 5,700, according to the ministry. Most of them have been sentenced to about a year and six months in prison.
The Constitutional Court ruled in 2004 and 2011 that it is constitutional to punish those who refuse mandatory military service.
Three men who faced a jail term last year for refusing to be drafted for religious reasons filed a constitutional complaint, and the court is currently reviewing the case.