Conscientious Objection in the Korean Context: A Presentation at Mennonite World Conference 2015

by SeongHan KimSeong_Han_Kim_2

According to a report released by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in July 2013, (, of the 723 conscientious objectors being imprisoned worldwide, 9 out of 10, or 92.5 percent, are South Korean nationals. Since 1950, 17,445 Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea have been imprisoned for refusing military service because of their religious beliefs.

Although the Korean government now allows various forms of alternative service for selected groups of people (e.g. science-engineering-medical students, those in public service, etc.), there is no available option for conscientious objectors at this time.

According to the PEW Research Center’s report “Global Religious Landscape,” 29% of South Koreans stated that they were Christian in 2010. This included members of the world’s largest Pentecostal church, Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul. Here are some interesting facts about Christianity in South Korea: (1) there are more Presbyterians in South Korea than the U.S. (2) the largest Methodist Church in the world is located in Seoul and (3) Until recently, South Korea was the second largest missionary sending country in the world.

So Christianity definitely holds a substantial place in South Korean society. The right question then to ask from the Peace Church tradition is: Although there is a strong Christian presence in South Korea, why are conscientious objection, Christian Pacifism, and other peace-related issues not on the agenda for the Church in Korea? Perhaps a discussion of Ethnic Nationalism, Anti-Communism, and Militarism in Korean society and (even) in the Church will help answer this question.

The Korean word for ‘nation’ minjok (minzoku in Japanese, minzu in Chinese), was a neologism adopted from the contemporary nationalist discourse in Japan. The English word ‘nation’ translates into Japanese as both kokumin (people of state or belong to the state, Volk) and minzoku (ethnic group of people). Since the Yi dynasty lost state sovereignty to Japan in 1910, minjok (ethnic nation) was the only identity left for many Koreans. During the Japanese occupation, minjok functioned as a resistive identity and subversive discourse against the Japanese occupation. Many of Korean national leaders were Christian as well. In fact, Christianity and Western civilization were considered as powerful solutions for overcoming Japanese occupation. These expectations formed a unique relationship between minjok identity and Christianity in Korea.

The Korean church has had a great zeal for mission and evangelism from the very beginning. The mass evangelization campaigns and outreaches in the Korean church have a long history. However, in the middle of 1960’s, which is post-colonial context, and under the Park’s dictatorship, the mass evangelization campaign was re-introduced into Korean society.

The series of this mass evangelization campaign largely operated under the minjok bokumhwa (evangelization of nation) discourse from the mid-60s to early 90s. During this period of the time, ethnic nationalism was also the ruling ideology for the dictatorship. In general, Korean nationalism was considered an advantage point for the rapid church growth.

Korea was a victim of Imperial Japan, and even though Korea did not cause World War II, the world powers decided on the separation of Korea instead of Japan. They drew the line on 38th parallel with the USSR and US Army controlling the North and South sides of Korean peninsula. Up to this point, there were actually more Christians on the North Korean side. Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, was once called the ‘New Jerusalem in Asia.’ However, under the Communist regime in North, many Christian fled from North to South before the Korean War began  June 25, 1950.

The Korean War was a relatively short but exceptionally bloody war. Nearly 5 million people died during the three years of the war. More than half were civilians. The war caused a lot of trauma for many Christians, especially those who fled from the North. (There is an exceptional story of forgiveness by Rev. Sohn Yangwon whose two sons were killed by the communists). But for many Christians, forgiveness and reconciliation with the communists and North Korea are unthinkable options.

On July 27, 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement ended the Korean War. Technically, because this is an armistice, Korea is still at war. The Cold War is not over on the Korean peninsula. The politicians of both Koreas continue to use the Korean War and its aftermath as a mechanism to make policy and for personal and religious interests. Church historian Timothy S. Lee argues that the most crucial reason for the success of evangelicalism in South Korea is that “South Korean evangelicalism coalesced with the collective interests of the larger society: first with Korean nationalism and then with South Korean anticommunism.”

In this context, the Korean Church became more patriotic and lost its prophetic witness. Mandatory military service was not only protecting the nation, but was defined as the fight against communism, or a “Spiritual battle.” Even further, the Korean Church sees the military service as a good opportunity for mission/evangelization. Over the last 50 years, the Korean Church has operated huge joint efforts among denominations as part of the Military Evangelization Campaign. Many of the young man in South Korea have the opportunity to receive baptism while they receive basic military training at boot camp. These mass baptisms at boot camp are regularly practiced today.

In July 23, 2013, five high school students of Kongju High School drowned at a private boot camp on the west coast of South Korea. The five students died during a three-day Marine’s boot camp. Among twenty-three students caught by a strong current, five went missing and their bodies were discovered the next day. Although the military drill education was terminated from the high school curriculum in 2012, it is worth noting that many schools, even some elementary schools, retain military education in various forms. One way the schools do this is by sending students to private boot camps for a field trip as part of the Military Field Experience, which is a joint program between the education office and the armed forces. These activities are considered a part of physical and mental education as well. Therefore, the tragedy with the five high school students is not a single incident. Rather, it is part of a larger narrative of the militarization of the whole Korean society which sadly reflects the long history of the militarization of the educational system in South Korea.

The background I have provided about evangelicalism and militarization in South Korean society provides a context for a more personal story, about SangMin Lee, a member of the Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul, South Korea.  As a young Christian, SangMin chose to become a conscientious objector to make a public commitment to the gospel of peace. As a result, on April 30, 2014, SangMin was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He is considered the first Mennonite conscientious objector in Korea. He will be released on parole on July 30, 2015, three days after Korean Armistice Agreement Day (July 27), which is quite symbolic. However, his decision to take a stand for the Prince of Peace and his criminal record will continue to have a lasting impact on his life.

It is important that we see SangMin’s story in the broader context. Often, this context requires us to listen to history. North and South Korea are two of the most militarized countries in the world. Militarization has deep roots in both societies, resulting from past conflicts, with the involvement of many Christians from other parts of the world. Therefore, the question is: how do we as the Global Church, the body of Christ, engage and support each other in this complicated global reality?

SeongHan Kim is working on a PhD in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. His research interests lie at the intersection of missiology and peace studies.


6 thoughts on “Conscientious Objection in the Korean Context: A Presentation at Mennonite World Conference 2015

  1. Thanks for sharing this very informative article! It addresses some questions I’ve had arising from conversations with Korean-backgroud Christian friends during my time in Australia.

  2. Thanks for the question. There were many CO suffered under the system of perpetual punishment in the past. However, now they sentenced only once…what an amazing progress! SangMin is now free from every military service (in Korea even after military service which is active duty, 4-7 years long reserve duty remain). But SangMin and other CO carry their criminal record in their lifetime which blocks many possible path for their future.

  3. You can also participate the campaign by Amnesty in Korea! If you follow this link.

    You may find three blanks at the right side. The first one from the top is for your name, and second blank area is for your e-mail address. Don’t forget to click the black/gray button. This petition is going to Ministry of National Defense of South Korea. Many thanks!

  4. Thank you for this history! I was a Jehovah’s Witness for 24 years. I was called to report for induction in 1963 but was rejected temporarily for my weight (too light!) I asked for a deferment previously as a conscientious objector and as a minister. (4-D classification), which was denied. I eve agree that Christians should have the right to object to military service based on conscience. However, I also believe in Biblical self-defense of home and family. I had 5 brothers serve in WW2. My brother Alex was a JW and went to prison in 1945 along with many JW’s. There were those who fled our country (USA) rather than take up arms against England during the Revolutionary War. I would have done the same thing as I believe that Romans 13:1 required no rebellion against England. (Or any other nation) What is the exact reading of the law in South Korea against conscientious objection to military service? I left JW’s in 1979 and am a member of a reformed church.

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