Sharing one amazing news. Last week, we heard that a Korean male citizen, Mr. Oh Soo-hwan, who opposed the mandatory military service based on his personal beliefs in nonviolence and pacifism was granted alternative public service. This is the first time ever since 1957 of The Military Service Act of 1949. It is said that Mr. Oh’s refusal was according to his true conscience!

Anyway, what’s the scenario, being a Korean male citizen faced with mandatory military service?

Here I would like to share a few memories of my encounters with young Koreans who are waiting for the call of mandatory military service or the ones who already have done with it.

In 2015, I met Sam while I was on my way to search for a new working place in Namyangju city, a place I had never been to before. Sam was a vibrant, positive and pragmatic young leader who was ready to help anyone in need of language translation, which is a very important help if you’re a new visitor to the area. We got along quickly and became friends since then. Even though we live far from each other, we meet occasionally. I have attended his wedding ceremony and visited his new home. Sam and his family usually come to see my art exhibitions. At one time, I was invited to visit his family house, and I was told that Sam’s older brother is in jail serving a prison term because of their religious affiliation. The family is Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t believe or want to serve in the military. They are sometimes referred to as conscientious objectors.

According to The New York Times report on October 24, 2020, “South Korea has imprisoned more conscientious objectors than any other country.” One source mentioned that about 19,000 Koreans, most of them Jehovah’s Witnesses, have served jail time for objecting to military service.

I was shocked and very much surprised that such things even exist in Korea at all! And I asked Sam if this could also happen to him. He just said that before his brother, his father was in the same situation, jailed for 18 months. So he didn’t find it at all strange if the same thing were to happen to him. He also has a younger brother as well as who is in China for the time being…Along the way, Sam mentioned something like this– unless the court decides against it or maybe puts in effect an alternative service, he might go to jail. That conversation really made me agonize emotionally. The fact is, even serving the jail sentence wouldn’t stop at that. A criminal record follows one’s whole life and leads to struggles in finding employment.

To cut the story short. Since then, I have been curious about military service and I usually ask anyone I meet whether he already did his military service or is waiting for the call. Frankly speaking, I haven’t yet met any single Korean who said they had. Instead, I see on their faces a look of distress, after all, mandatory is mandatory. There are exemptions in athletics, music and arts. Recently, it was for some K-pop artists who got a two-year extension. But then, just this year, one of our close artist friends has joined the military service. He was an emerging artist and very helpful in the promotional aspect of the visual arts in Seoul!

In 2018, a court ruling recognized the need for an alternative service to mandatory military service. Then, in December 2020, the Korean national assembly passed a new law that allows a three-year alternative service for conscientious objectors. So my friend Sam was among the ones who supported the new law, and he might be called for an alternative instead of mandatory service in May 2021.

I would like to extend my good wishes to the 942 people who were granted permission to do alternative service instead of military service. This includes my friend Sam and Mr. Oh who are part of this historic development of the mandatory military service in Korea.