Kim Ju-hwan is a 24-year-old with an uncertain future. His beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness have brought him into direct conflict with the conscription laws of his country – South Korea.
He now faces a year-long jail sentence if his appeal to his country’s Supreme Court does not prevail.
All Witnesses are raised to abhor violence and follow the Bible admonition to “love your enemy” to the letter, which means that military service of any kind is out of the question.
South Korea does make some modest concessions to conscientious objectors by offering alternative non-military service, but this doesn’t go far enough towards appeasing the Witness faith.
“There are jobs in the military that don’t require you to be out in the frontlines, like working in an office,” says Kim. “But nonetheless, you still have to go through five weeks of basic training, and this is what I and other conscientious objectors refuse to do. I think if this training was replaced with an alternative service, then we wouldn’t have a problem with serving.”
South Korea has rightly been criticized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for failing to recognize the rights of conscientious objectors. But rather than simply being a human rights issue, there are more complex reasons why South Korea must review its approach to conscription where Witnesses are concerned.
Fueling the persecution complex
Of all the governments in the world that should be intimately familiar with the insidious nature of totalitarian regimes who use undue influence to wrench unquestioned obedience and unflinching devotion from their subjects, it should be South Korea.
Locked in a perpetual state of war with its North Korean foe, which is cited as one of the reasons for its strict conscription policy, South Korea should be well versed in undue influence and how cult-like movements both political and religious thrive on the slightest hint of persecution or aggression to stoke the indoctrination of their minions.
But, for whatever reason, South Korea fails to see the irony that by embracing such draconian and backwards measures in its attempts to stave off one authoritarian regime, it is putting wind in the sails of another. For if there is one thing that plays straight into the hands of Watchtower’s propaganda machine, it is the notion of Witnesses like young Kim being persecuted for their convictions.
Human rights à la carte
A further irony is that, in riding to the defense of repressed adherents such as Kim, Watchtower invokes the same human rights Declaration that it routinely violates.
As has already been pointed out on this website, Watchtower rides roughshod over article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees that every person has the “freedom to change his [or her] religion or belief.”
Rather than recognizing this freedom and allowing disenchanted Witnesses to leave freely, Watchtower coerces their family members to shun and have ill-feeling towards them, thus cynically using loved ones as a sadistic method of punishment in furtherance of its agenda.
But this doesn’t stop Watchtower from beseeching the UN Human Rights Committee in pressing for the freedom of worship of South Korean conscientious objectors who happen to be Witnesses, as the following yearbook quotes attest…
“On several occasions, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has condemned South Korea for violating the right to freedom of conscience. New applications are currently pending before this Committee and before the South Korean Constitutional Court in an attempt to resolve the matter.” – yb13, p.41
“In the meantime, on March 24, 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) ruled that South Korea violated internationally recognized standards of human rights when it imprisoned 100 conscientious objectors who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. (These 100 brothers had appealed to the UNHRC for having been imprisoned.)” – yb12, p.37
“To date, the Korean National Assembly has not considered any bill on alternative service. The brothers are awaiting decisions from the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations, which ruled favorably on two applications.” – yb10, p.22
“Progress is being made in South Korea, where the government has refused to recognize the basic human right of conscientious objection to military service… To date, 488 applications have been filed with the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations, which ruled favorably on two applications in 2006. In the meantime, our brothers hope that the government will follow through with its intention to enact a law that provides for acceptable alternative civilian service.” – yb09 p.23
So while the South Korean government may feel its stringent conscription policy gives it a further bulwark against the despotic whims of another Kim and his cronies, it would do well to consider that its draconian treatment of conscientious objectors does little more than fuel the persecution complex of cult victims not just in their country, but globally.
Young Witness men like Kim who are raised in the faith don’t have the luxury of seeing the broader picture.
They simply cannot know that they are pawns in a global propaganda campaign, or that their year in jail to escape crawling through mud for five weeks does nothing more than provide Watchtower’s writers with tear-jerking yearbook fodder.
But the South Korean government can (or should) be wise to both sides of the story, and by dismissing the concerns of the United Nations and neglecting to bring their conscription policies into conformity with human rights they are playing straight into the hands of the very sort of manipulative regime that menaces their border.