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

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.

In June, 333 Jehovah's Witnesses who had all been jailed for refusing conscription filed a joint petition with the Constitutional Court, demanding that conscientious objection be decriminalised.

The petition argued that genuine objectors be provided with an alternative to military service, such as community work.

The South Korean military relies heavily on conscription and military service often involves postings to front-line positions on the border with North Korea.

In May 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, killing 46 sailors including 16 who were on their military service.

In November the same year, the North shelled a South Korean border island, killing two marines - both of them young conscripts.

Such incidents make the debate over military service extremely sensitive and woe betide anyone caught trying to cheat their way out of it.

South Korean law requires anyone seeking a top government post or a seat in parliament to provide proof not only of their own service records but also those of their children.

And yet hundreds do try and avoid the draft every year, using tactics that range from extended overseas study, to starving themselves so that they fail the medical.

Other examples include the members of a break-dancing troupe arrested for pretending to have mental disorders, and a student who intentionally dislocated his shoulder and underwent surgery so as to fail the medical exam.

A few years ago, there was a mini-fad for large tattoos, which carry an organised-crime association in South Korea and can result in people being declared unsuitable for military service.

The loophole was effectively closed by a series of arrests of young men opting for last-minute all-body tattoos, who were then charged with "wilfully tampering" with their bodies to avoid service and jailed.

Even top celebrities with massive followings face a potentially career-destroying backlash if seen to be taking liberties with the demands of military service.

Just as he was about to be called up in 2002, Korean-American pop singer Steve Yoo gave up his Korean nationality and became a naturalised US citizen.

The South Korean government considered it an act of desertion and he was deported and banned from returning for life.

Pop icon Rain was pilloried last year when it emerged that he had been allowed to slip out of barracks on several occasions to meet an actress he was dating.

And "Gangnam Style" star Psy was forced to serve twice after it emerged he had furthered his showbiz interests during his first stint.

Left-wing activist Kim Young-Ik was imprisoned in 2009 for refusing his military service but, unlike many Jehovah's Witnesses, he lacked the natural support network of equally devout family members and friends.

"My parents went through a lot," Kim recalled. "They came to accept my decision, rather than support it, but they were very worried about what it would mean for my future."

But Kim, now 31, said he would take the same stand again if given a second chance.

"It's wrong that anyone should have to go to prison for their beliefs, but I gained from the experience and it grounded me as a person," he said.