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Sunday, 5 May, 2002, 23:17 GMT 00:17 UK
Korean pacifists fight conscription
South Korean soldiers
Seoul wants to be ready for any attack from the North
test hello test
By Caroline Gluck
BBC Seoul correspondent
Military service is mandatory in South Korea - a country still technically at war with its neighbour, North Korea.

If I serve in the military, it would violate everything I believed in

South Korean Buddhist Oh Tae-yang
But in recent years, more people are questioning the compulsory nature of military service.

There are currently 1,600 people in prison for refusing the draft for religious and moral reasons. The current law makes no provision for conscientious objectors, who can face up to three years in prison.

But the Constitutional Court is currently reviewing the law - which many believe represents a violation of people's basic human rights to freedom of thought and religion.

Emotional goodbyes

At an emotional ceremony in the South Korean countryside, where hundreds of young men are saying goodbye to their families, and putting their studies or careers on hold, the conscripts have mixed feelings about entering the military.

Boot camp factors
All fit and healthy men must serve 26 months
1,600 conscientious objectors currently in jail
37% of South Koreans follow Buddhism - a pacifist religion

"I hope Korea gets unified, so there's no need to go into the military in the first place," says one young man.

The men will spend the next few weeks at the Nonsan military camp in central Chungchong province, learning the basics of being a soldier.

Under Korean law, all fit and healthy men are required to serve at least two years and two months in the military.

It is a key part of the defence of the nation.

Religious convictions

But more people, like Oh Tae-yang, are challenging the law.

North-South Korea border
The two Koreas are still technically at war

"I'm objecting to the military because I'm a Buddhist and I don't believe in killing. If I serve in the military, it would violate everything I believed in," he explained.

The 26-year-old - a vegetarian pacifist - volunteers at a community centre for the underprivileged.

But he will soon have to appear before a court for refusing the draft. He faces a jail term and a life-long criminal record.

The Constitutional Court is now reviewing the law to assess whether it violates other human rights such as freedom of conscience and of religion.

Unique situation

But military officials, like Kim Byung-ryull, at the National Defence University, say South Korea's unique situation makes conscription essential.

"Korea is very different from other countries; it could come under attack at any moment," he says.

"At the moment, only a minority are seeking status as conscientious objectors, but if a quarter of Korean Buddhists asked to be exempted from army service, that would be a big threat to our military preparedness."

For now, compulsory military service is inevitable. Some enter the military with a sense of pride; others see it as an unavoidable duty.

But for a growing number, it has become a moral issue - and many are now pushing to get the law changed.

See also:

21 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Anger over Korea military exercise
12 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea: A military threat?
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