Jehovah’s Witnesses stood outside the Constitutional Court in Seoul three years ago before filing a joint petition on behalf of church members jailed for refusing conscription. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

South Korea should immediately end the needless imprisonment of hundreds of young men who refuse to do compulsory military service for religious or philosophical reasons, Amnesty International said in a report issued Wednesday.

In their report entitled Sentenced to Life: Conscientious Objectors in South Korea, the human rights group said that more than 600 South Korean men are imprisoned each year for being conscientious objectors, often with devastating social and economic consequences.

“For the South Korean government to condemn innocent young men as criminals is a scandal and a violation of their rights,”said Hiroka Shoji, east Asia researcher at the human rights group. “The jailing of conscientious objectors does not make South Korea any safer, it only serves to stigmatize and crush the aspirations of young men who had bright futures.”

The two Koreas are still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, and both sides maintain large militaries.

Meanwhile, a South Korean reserve soldier went on a shooting spree Wednesday, killing a fellow reservist and injuring three others before killing himself, the Associated Press reported, sparking worries about mental health conditions in the country’s armed forces.

The soldier opened fire with a K-2 rifle on fellow reservists during mandatory drills at a reserve forces training site in Seoul, the news agency reported, quoting army officials speaking on condition of anonymity because of strict rules. He then committed suicide and one of the injured was declared dead at a hopsital.

A shooting involving a reservist is unusual, but shootings at military barracks by soldiers have happened with some regularity in recent years.

South Korea conscripts all young men to complete almost two years of compulsory military service by the time they are 24 and then to serve in the reserve forces for eight years, with a maximum of 160 hours of duty per year.

Most of those jailed for refusing to perform the country’s compulsory military service belong to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination, who object to serving in the military on religious grounds. The church published statistics saying that 613 of its adherents were in prison as of last month.

Others imprisoned are pacifists. All face up to three years’ imprisonment and heavy fines.

Regardless of their reasons for refusing military service, they face economic and social disadvantages which last far beyond their sentences, Amnesty said.

“I could not find employment. This is because of objecting to military service,” said Song In-ho, a 25 year-old recent college graduate and Jehovah’s Witness who is working for his parents’ cleaning company while he awaits a court ruling on his decision not to perform military service.

“Getting a job in a reputable company is nearly impossible because the discrimination and prejudice are so strong,” Song told Amnesty, explaining that he was a conscientious objector because of “his Bible trained conscience”.

Kim Sung-min, who objects to performing military service because he is a pacifist, is currently serving an 18-month sentence in a Seoul detention center.

“For me, conscientious objection is not only about refusing to be a militant, but also fighting against the military spirit that is deeply ingrained in everyday life,” he is quoted as saying in the report.

The South’s defense ministry said in 2007 that it would introduce alternative service for conscientious objectors within two years, but these plans were put on hold indefinitely after a change of government in 2008.

Kim Min-seok, the spokesperson for the defense ministry, said that the current law gave it no leeway.

“South Korean law does not allow citizens alternatives to mandatory military service so without the revision of the law, there is no way to avoid the imprisonment of conscientious objectors,” he said, adding that this was not a matter of human rights but a matter of abiding by the law.

“Besides, most South Koreans do not acknowledge conscientious objectors and they are critical of their actions,” Kim said. “North Korea still poses an imminent threat to South Korea and this does not allow us to adopt alternative measures for the military service."

But Amnesty said that under international law, every person had the right to refuse military service for reasons of conscience or profound personal conviction.

The human rights group called on the South Korean government to give conscientious objectors a “genuinely civilian” alternative to military service, and to immediately release those currently imprisoned and clear the criminal records of all conscientious objectors.

Deane reported from London.