Jail or Olympic glory: No easy exit from S.Korea draft

South Korean lawyer Oh Du-Jin (C) and Jehovahs Witnesses standing in front of the the Constitutional Court in Seoul before filing a joint petition of 333 Jehovahs Witnesses who had all been jailed for refusing conscription. They demand that conscientious objection be decriminalised and argue that genuine objectors be provided with an alternative to military service, such as community work.

SEOUL - When the South Korean men's football team won the third-place playoff at the 2012 Olympics, their ecstatic celebrations reflected a victory that had secured something far more precious than a bronze medal.

The 2-0 win over Japan meant the entire squad was excused from what many young South Korean men view as a blight on their existence - two years of compulsory military service.

An Olympic medal offers a very rare exemption from a duty that - 60 years after the end of the Korean War - is still required of every able-bodied South Korean man between the age of 18 and 35.

The main rationale is the threat posed by North Korea, given that the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

For many it is an unwanted and deeply resented intrusion that interferes with studies or nascent careers and serves no discernible purpose, especially in a rapidly-ageing society where the size of the workforce is dwindling by the year.

The vast majority , however unwillingly, buckle down, knowing that refusal to serve means an automatic prison term and a criminal record that precludes any future job with the government or a major corporation.

But a tiny minority, citing religious, moral or political reasons, choose to openly defy the system.

Most prominent among the "refuseniks" are Jehovah's Witnesses, some 12,000 of whom have been jailed over the past six decades.

"We can't even conceive of bearing arms, and entering the military would be tantamount to renouncing our faith," said Choi Jin-Taek, 31, who was handed an 18-month prison term in 2007.

"Fear of prison is nothing compared to the damage that would be done to my conscience if I accepted military service, " said Choi, who now helps prepare fellow Jehovah Witnesses for their prison experience.

Kim Hyung-Jin, waiting to begin an 18-month sentence passed down in March, said he had no regrets.

"I'm not scared of prison. I know I'm doing the right thing and I've had a lot of support," said Kim, 22.

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