Conscientious Objection for Reserved Forces in South Korea – Sung-Hyun Jo’s Story

by SeongHan KimSeong_Han_Kim_2

Band of Brothers

The story of Korean Conscientious Objector Sang-Min widely spread among many Anabaptist-Mennonite circles. While he was in prison, he received many letters and cards from different parts of the world. Thankfully brother Sang-Min finished his prison term with good health. He is now working as a bicycle mechanic (his dream), and just got married in early January 2017.

While Sang-Min is starting a new chapter in his life, his friend Sung-Hyun Jo is also taking new steps in costly decision for Conscientious Objection for Reserved Forces (COR). Sung-Hyun and Sang-Min use to be members of Grace & Peace Mennonite Church. When Sang-Min was in prison, Sung-Hyun served as head of the support group for Sang-Min.

Sung-Hyun struggled through his military service as part of the Korean Augmentation Troops to the United States Army (2009-2011). After another two years of reserved duty, he has made public his objection to reserved military service.

A Long History of Militarization

Compulsory military service (mostly 2 years) is mandatory in South Korea. There are a few exemptions, but overall the South Korean government does not provide alternative services for Conscientous Objectors. The problem is that after your active duty there is another 8 years reserved duty for soldiers. If you served as an officer then you have 10 years reserved duty. Each year the government requires different types of mobilization trainings and military drills. Therefore, reserved duty is not a matter of choice, rather an extension of compulsory military service.

The origin of Reserved Forces in South Korea dates back to Park Chung-Hee era. After Korean involvement in the Vietnam War in 1966, the military tension and occasional conflicts between the North and South increased dramatically. These tensions reached a peak in 1968 when North Korean Special Forces nearly reached the Presidential house in Seoul. The Homeland Army Reserve was then established. Concurrently, the Ministry of Education mandated an emphasis on anti-communist education in schools and military drill education for high school and college students. Many decades later, compulsory military service and its reserved forces are a shared experience for most men in South Korea. It serves as a disciplinary mechanism for constructing nationalism, anti-communism, militarism, and masculinity in the society.

Perpetual punishment

Every year around 600 young men are put into prison as Conscientious Objectors in South Korea. It is a costly decision to become a CO in Korea, but to become a COR is more costly. If you disobey the training notification, than you become a criminal subject. That means huge fines, frequent appearances in courts, and even prohibition of departure from the country. It is also the beginning of a perpetual punishment.  Although you pay a fine, they send another training notification for that year. It starts with a penalty of around $300 US dollars, but if you keep disobeying, the fine increases. Since you make a payment for the fine, you don’t have to go to prison. However, over the years you will end up with thousands of dollars worth of fines and suffer with frequent notifications, and orders of attendance. One COR said, “It’s like serving eight years of prison outside of prison.” In some sense this is true. It is more difficult and complicated than CO for active duty.

God so loved the world

On February 5th Sung-Hyun visited Jesus’ Heart Church in Chuncheon and shared his story. Sung-Hyun said, “In 2007, when I was twenty years old, I realized that God loved me deeply, and he loves everyone in the world. It was then hard for me to think of killing or harming another person who is also loved by the same God.” For him, watching the Gaza War on December 2008 was a significant event in forming his peace position. On March 5, 2014 on Ash Wednesday, Sung-Hyun finally decided to take the difficult path to becoming a COR.

Sung-Hyun raised some challenging questions for the Church in Korea and beyond. Does God so love the world? How do we as God’s people, how to participate God’s amazing love in this militarized world?

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.


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