SEOUL — South Korean authorities released 57 men Friday jailed for refusing mandatory military duty, marking a potential shift in policies to give more options to conscientious objectors for alternative service.
The men paroled included those who rejected military service on religious grounds and for other reasons.
It followed a landmark ruling Nov. 1 by South Korea’s Supreme Court that acquitted a member of the Jehovah Witness church for refusing conscription. The church’s teachings oppose joining the armed forces.
In June, a constitutional court said the government must introduce alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. Public hearings are underway to review the service’s form and duration.
The court decisions also reflected a general shift in attitudes in South Korea about potential threats from the North after nearly a year of groundbreaking outreach between South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, and the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
In symbolic peace gestures, 10 guard posts on each side of the heavily fortified border have been destroyed. The final demolitions took place Friday. Land mine clearance is also underway.
Beyond affecting the conscientious objectors released Friday, the court ruling could lead to more cases being dropped. Hundreds of young men remain imprisoned or on trial for objecting to army service.
Kim Jin-woo, a 22-year-old member of Jehovah’s Witness, had been serving an 18-month prison term since December 2017. He now can finish the rest of his sentence performing social work.
“I am happy to be freed and welcome any other community service as an alternative, as long as my conscience is not violated,” Kim said.
Moon’s government plans to shorten the service period for army and marine draftees from 21 months to 18 months, and to reduce the number of armed forces from 620,000 to 500,000.
Some South Koreans object to Moon’s efforts at detente with the North, fearing it could weaken the South’s national defense.
In an editorial earlier this month, the right-leaning Chosun Ilbo newspaper called the court acquittal of conscientious objectors a “profligacy” given threats from North Korea. The paper said the tolerance for conscientious objectors was a risky “luxury.”