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.
He’s appealed to the nation’s Supreme Court and is awaiting their ruling.
Kim says, as a Jehovah’s Witness, 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 men must serve for around two years in the armed forces.
But for conscientious objectors, like Kim, Ju-hwan, there is no alternative service that doesn’t require military training.
“There are jobs in the military that don’t require you to be out in the frontlines, like working in an office. But none the less, 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 over nations that do not recognize conscientious objectors.
The UN attributes data from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that show South Korea has imprisoned the most conscientious objectors worldwide.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense declines interviews regarding conscientious objectors.
But a spokesperson writes in an e mail that tension with North Korea is why military policy won’t be changed.
The official writes that the majority of South Koreans want to maintain the current conscription policy.
But Lee Jae-seong, a law professor at Seoul’s Konkuk University says the South Koran 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. But these days, the public no longer feels that way. One can still be a real man even if they perform an alternative service.”
For proof, Lee points to a recent survey that shows 68-percent of respondents favor the adoption of an alternative, civilian service for conscientious objectors.
That’s up from a previous poll that shows those in favor accounted for only 44.3%.
Despite the recent data, some advocates say conscientious objectors still face discrimination once they get out of prison.
Lee Bal-rae heads the Legislation and Policy Improving division at South Korea’s National Hunan Rights Commission.
“There’s a lot of prejudice toward conscientious objectors. Many people consider them as criminals. It’s hard for them find jobs, especially the in public sector.”
In hopes of influencing the public’s and lawmakers’ opinions, the National Human Rights Commission recently produced a film depicting the lives of a family of conscientious objectors.
That movie is based on the real 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 one day has a son, he would not expect him to carry on the tradition.
“I will teach my child values like loving your neighbors or enemies. But the final decision will be left up to him.”
He hopes the day comes soon that Korean men won’t have to make that decision.
That change could come if the Supreme Court rules in favor of conscientious objector Kim Ju-hwan.
He says he feels confident. “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.”
Kim says no matter what the outcome, his faith will help him get through it.