Supreme Court upholds acquittal of man who refused enlistment for non-violent beliefs

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SEOUL, June 24 (Yonhap) – The highest court on Thursday upheld a not guilty verdict for a conscientious objector who avoided compulsory military service due to personal beliefs, in the first such case.

The Supreme Court upheld the acquittal by the appeals court of the man, a self-identified “queer feminist” accused of breaking the military service law for refusing to follow his conscription in 2017.

The ruling marks the first time that the country’s highest court has acquitted a person who dodged military enlistment for reasons other than being a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

By law, all able-bodied South Korean men must perform compulsory military service for about 18 months in a country that faces North Korea across a heavily fortified border.

“The accused’s personal and religious beliefs formed and deeply rooted in him, showing that he opposed enlistment on the basis of his true conscience,” Supreme Court Justice Kim Seon said -soo, making the decision.

During court hearings, the accused claimed he felt dislike of the uniform education structure and peer culture enforcing masculinity among male students during his high school years.

He also participated in anti-war protests, which he said were in keeping with the spirit of peace and love emphasized by Christianity. The person also refused to accept what he described as the “discriminatory and hierarchical military system that destroys diversity”, as well as the state power that defines identity based on biological sex.

The South Korean military does not allow enlistment of transgender people and criminalizes same-sex relationships in troops under military law.

In 2018, the person was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for fraud, but an appeals court overturned the decision last year, citing that he was following his beliefs at the risk of criminal punishment and that he had expressed his willingness to carry alternative service in a correctional facility rather than in the military.

South Korea has started allowing conscientious objectors to replace their compulsory military service with other public services following recognition by a Military Manpower Administration selection committee last October.

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