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Jehovah's Witness Challenge To South Korea's Military Service

Kim Ju-hwan
Kim Ju-hwan
Jason Strother

SEOUL — Kim Ju-hwan is headed toward an uncertain future. The 24-year old university student was sentenced to a year in jail for refusing to serve in South Korea’s military.

As a Jehovah’s Witness, Kim says he’s morally opposed to war. “Based on what I learned in the Bible, I’m a conscientious objector. There’s a verse that says love your enemy. That’s my belief, and it’s how I’m trying to lead my life.”

All able-bodied South Korean are required to serve in the armed forces for about two years. But for conscientious objectors like Kim Ju-hwan, there is no alternative service that allows citizens to avoid military training. He has appealed his sentence to the nation’s Supreme Court and is awaiting its ruling.

“There are jobs in the military that don’t require you to be out in the frontlines, like working in an office,” he says. “But nonetheless, you still have to go through five weeks of basic training, and this is what I and other conscientious objectors refuse to do. I think if this training was replaced with an alternative service, then we wouldn’t have a problem with serving.”

In a 2013 report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about nations that do not recognize conscientious objectors. Data from the Jehovah’s Witnesses show that South Korea has imprisoned more conscientious objectors than any other nation.

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense declines interviews on the subject, but in an email a spokesperson cites tension with North Korea as the reason why military policy won’t be changed, adding that the majority of South Koreans want to maintain the current conscription policy.

Quaint policy?

But Lee Jae-seong, a law professor at Seoul’s Konkuk University, says the South Korean military and government are behind the times. “In the past, people thought that in order to become a man, one had to complete his military service,” he says. “But these days, the public no longer feels that way. One can still be a real man even if they perform an alternative service.”

South Korean soldiers take part in an anti-terror exercise in Incheon — Photo: Park Jin-Hee/Xinhua/ZUMA

For proof, he points to a recent survey showing 68% of respondents favoring the adoption of an alternative, civilian service for conscientious objectors. That’s up from a previous poll showing those in favor numbering only 44.3%.

Despite the recent data, some advocates say conscientious objectors still face discrimination once they are released from prison. “There’s a lot of prejudice toward conscientious objectors,” says Lee Bal-rae, who heads the Legislation and Policy Improving division at South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission. “Many people consider them criminals. It’s hard for them find jobs, especially the in public sector.”

Hoping to influence lawmakers and public opinion generally, the National Human Rights Commission recently produced a film depicting the lives of a family of conscientious objectors. The movie is based on the true story of Kim Ji-kwan, his two brothers and father, who were all imprisoned for refusing to serve in the nation’s military.

Kim says he and the other men in his family did the right thing by going to jail for their beliefs. But, he says, if he has a son one day, he would not expect him to carry on the tradition. “I will teach my child values like loving your neighbors or enemies,” he says. “But the final decision will be left up to him.”

He hopes there will soon be a day when Korean men won’t have to make that decision. That could come if the Supreme Court rules in favor of conscientious objector Kim Ju-hwan.

The young man says he feels confident he will avoid jail time. “At first, me and my friends and family were worried, but I think all this waiting just means the judge is really taking my case into consideration,” he says.

But no matter the outcome, Kim says his faith will help him get through it.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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