S. Korea's top court keeps conscientious objector in jail

SEOUL, South Korea – Human rights activists voiced disappointment Friday, August 28, after South Korea's Supreme Court turned down an appeal by a conscientious objector against a jail term for refusing to serve in the military.

More than 60 years after the end of the Korean War, nearly every able-bodied South Korean man between the age of 18 and 35 is required to complete around two years of military service.

The main rationale is the threat posed by North Korea, given that the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

Anyone refusing faces a prison term of up to 3 years.

In its ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the 18-month sentence handed down to the appellant, a 21-year-old, identified only by his surname, Ahn.

"Objecting to one's duty in the name of conscience does not belong on the list of justifiable causes that exempt one from punishment," the court said.

Like the majority of other service "refuseniks" Ahn is a Jehovah's Witness and argued his case against serving on the grounds of religious conviction.

Some 12,000 South Korean Jehovah's Witnesses have been jailed as conscientious objectors over the past six decades. 

"We were very disappointed by the latest ruling," said Kim Hee-jin, the director of Amnesty International Korea.

"Recently, there have been some favourable rulings by district courts, and we had taken those as a sign that the legal sands were shifting," Kim said.

This was the second time the issue has come before the Supreme Court, which issued a similar judgement back in 2004.

A separate appeal is currently pending before the Constitutional Court, which has twice ruled against the conscientious objection lobby, in 2004 and 2011.

The South Korean military relies heavily on conscription and military service often involves postings to front-line positions on the border with North Korea.

In May 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, killing 46 sailors including 16 who were on their military service.

In November the same year, the North shelled a South Korean border island, killing two marines -- both of them young conscripts.  – Rappler.com