12.06.17 | News, Three questions for

Three questions for...

South Korean MOON Myungjin, who was imprisoned after declaring his conscientious objection in 2010
MOON Myungjin

In South Korea, MOON Myungjin is involved in the peace movement. (Photo: EMS/Heiligers)

All men in South Korea are obliged to serve in the military when they reach the age of 18. Since 1945, there are about 20.000 Koreans who became conscientious objectors. One of them is MOON Myungjin. In an interview, he explains why he refused to serve for the military and what consequences this decision had.

Why did you decide to refuse the military service and become a conscientious objective?

There was no critical moment in which I decided to become a conscientious objective (CO). It was more a cumulation when I thought about what peace is and what military service wants me to do. But there was one personal experience in 2003 when I went to university which could be seen as a starting point. Back then, the US-led war against Iraq broke out and I joined the demonstrations against the South Korean government's decision to send Korean troops to Iraq. Before that moment I believed what the state told us and it was very surprising to see that the police cracked down their own people instead of protecting them. Later on I got more and more involved in the peace movement. They say the army exists to protect its people against the enemy, and what I witnessed was that the enemy could be me if I would not agree with the authority. So that was the very beginning which led to my conscientious objection in 2010.

What happened when you announced your conscientious objection?

Given the number of conscientious objectors imprisoned in Korea, you could say in average about two people a day refuse to serve for the army in Korea. I held a press conference together with "World Without War" in 2010 on the very day I was supposed to enlist. After that I was called for investigation by the police and a prosecutor. It took about three to four months until I was imprisoned.

In our movement we sometimes divide ourselves jokingly in first, second and third generation. I might be around the second generation. When I heard the experiences in prison of first generation conscientious objectors it was very hard for me. So I prepared myself how I can respond to other prisoners. You have to know that in the past most of the COs were Jehovah's Witnesses, and they still take up the largest portion in Korea. But when I was in prison the others did not care about me because they knew already that there are conscientious objectors who do not belong to Jehovah 's Witnesses in Korea. They treated me just like every other prisoner.

It was still difficult for me in prison. One thing that I was obsessed with after my release was that I found myself in prison very obedient towards the guards. It is kind of ironic when you refuse to be an obedient soldier but you then become very obedient to the guards in jail to get an early release. I felt very helpless back then and it was very emotional for me.

How does your record affect your life nowadays? Do you see a change in the Korean society regarding conscientious objection?

I am a very lucky case because I did not intend to apply for a normal company but wanted to be involved in civil movement. Therefore, there was no problem with my criminal record. Instead, sometimes my criminal record works more like a kind of fame. But if you apply for a normal job you get difficulties. Even if you have passed every process and have been accepted by the company they check your criminal record in the end and you get sacked.

In some ways I see a change in the Korean society but in other ways I don't. In 2007, the government announced to introduce an alternative service for people who refuse the military service. But a year later the conservative party took the administration and cancelled all the plans referring to opinion polls. Anyhow, when you watch the news nowadays you hear at least the term conscientious objection – ten years ago that was not the case.

The interview was conducted by Elisa Heiligers.