A group of South Koreans who refused to serve in the military have started a landmark alternative conscription program, a first for a country that used to put them in prison as convicted criminals.
All able-bodied South Korean men are required to undergo nearly two years of military service, a law that authorities deem necessary due to threats from North Korea, with which it is still technically at war.
Until recently those who cited religious or moral beliefs for their decision not to enlist in the army could be sentenced to jail terms of at least 18 months, the standard period of service.
But following a Constitutional Court decision ordering the government to come up with alternative service options in 2018, a total of 63 consciousness objectors have now entered a new program where they perform jobs in a correctional center and are kept apart from other prisoners, the Military Manpower Administration announced on Monday.
South Korea has maintained mandatory conscription for over half a century following the Korean War. The modern conscription system was introduced in the South in 1949, but not until 1957 was it actually implemented as an essential tool.
The conscientious objectors, many of whom are Jehovah's Witnesses, will be assigned jobs working in meal prep, facilities management, or in the health section of the facilities. They will get the same periodic leaves and wages as soldiers but their period of stay will be much longer, at 36 months compared to the normal 18.
All applicants have to pass rigorous screening processes by demonstrating their religious beliefs or other beliefs that are incompatible with military service.
Mo Jong-hwa, commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, said on Monday that the new program was "very meaningful" as it was being carried out within a military framework.
Though some rights advocates have pointed to the contrast in time served between alternative service and regular army stints, the program is popular in South Korea.
Nearly 43 percent of the public and almost 80 percent of active duty soldiers said when surveyed that 36 months was the appropriate period of time for those who refused to serve, according to a survey conducted commissioned by the Ministry of National Defense in 2018.
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