When Lee Haw-sook’s son was growing up, she knew there was a risk he’d end up in prison.
Lee is one of around 100,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Korea. While the Christian denomination are a tiny minority in the country, they make up the majority of the thousands who have been jailed for refusing to serve in the military.
“I looked at the older children who were going (to prison), and realized that my child would too,” Lee told CNN.
Though she raised her son, Gyo-won, in the faith, Lee said she never pressure him to become an objector and encouraged him to make up his own mind on it.
“I’m proud of my son that he chose to follow his faith out of his own free will,” she said. “I’m grateful towards him that he followed my faith.”
Now 22, Gyo-won is serving an 18-month sentence.
South Korea – still technically at war with its northern neighbor – imprisons more conscientious objectors than any other country, but Jehovah’s Witnesses and other objectors are optimistic this will soon change.
In June, the Constitutional Court ruled the government must provide alternative civilian roles for those who decline to take up arms, and on Thursday the Supreme Court of South Korea began hearings into the matter for the first time in 14 years, with 900 cases before lower courts currently on hold. A ruling is expected towards the end of the year.
“I hope that I will be among the last ones to experience prison life, a prison life that was given to me due to my love of others and, most importantly, my love of God and his principles,” Lee Gyo-won said last week from the Daegu Detention Center, in the country’s south.
Under current South Korean law, all men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to perform at least 21 months of military service. The Defense Ministry has pledged to reduce the term to 18 months by 2020.
The law has derailed the careers of many of the country’s biggest sports stars and K-Pop artists, with hugely popular boy band Big Bang having to go on hiatus recently so its members can perform their military service.
On Saturday, South Korea’s national men’s football team – including Premier League star Son Heung-min – are one game away from avoiding military service and a potentially fatal pause in their professional careers, if they beat Japan in the final of the Asian Games.
For those who choose prison over the military, their professional lives can be completely devastated, according to Amnesty International, which said in a briefing to the Supreme Court that “many conscientious objectors face economic and social disadvantages which last far beyond their typical 18 month jail term.”
From early adulthood, Lee Gyo-won prepared for jail, choosing not to go to university but instead to become a contractor, specializing in interior construction, so he could be self-employed after his release from prison. When the day of his conscription came, he arranged with police to hand himself over.
“He didn’t want the officers to show up at his house to put cuffs on him,” Lee’s mother said. “My family went with him that day and officers met him outside the prison and took him in.”
While the Constitutional Court found the current law unconstitutional and ordered the government to legislative to provide alternative forms of service by the end of 2019, it did not expunge the criminal records of those already sentenced, or do anything for the more than 200 conscientious objectors currently in prison, including Lee Gyo-won.
“Conscientious objectors must never be treated as criminals simply for exercising their human right,” said Amnesty International researcher Hiroka Shoji. “The Supreme Court must now act up to finally recognize the right (conscientious objectors) are entitled to.”
Many conservative South Koreans still strongly support military conscription however. A bill proposed by Liberty Korea Party lawmakers this month would force objectors to perform 44 months – double the usual length – of alternative service, including mine sweeping and other dangerous activities.
“This is a form of retaliatory punishment against conscientious objectors that is anachronistic and in violation of human rights,” the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper said in an editorial last week.
The longstanding refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to serve in the military has often brought believers into conflict with governments.
Witnesses’ conscientious objection is based on a belief “that Christians should abstain from war because they have no right to take human life,” informed by pacifist Bible passages and the example of early Christian communities.
Some 4,000 Witnesses were jailed by the US during World War II, and hundreds of German practitioners were executed by the Nazi regime for refusing to serve in the military, according to the group.
“Korean Witnesses, though, have the distinction of enduring the longest-running prohibition of their stand of conscience,” the group said in a statement.
While she supported her son’s decision to take a stand, Lee could not help worrying about him when he first went to prison.
“He grew up like a flower in a green house, sheltered, in quiet beauty,” she said. “My imagination would run wild. But I realized that there is nothing I can do for him so I let it all go.”
Lee said she was “proud of my son,” but happy that due to the Constitutional Court’s decision – and a potentially further reaching Supreme Court ruling – his would be the last generation of Witnesses going to prison.
“All his predecessors’ sacrifices have contributed to this,” she said.
James Griffiths reported and wrote from Hong Kong. Jake Kwon reported from Seoul, South Korea.