Kim Kyung-hwan grew up in South Korea’s north Gyeonggi Province, just across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from North Korea and located at the tensest point of the two countries’ military stand-off.
“When I was a small child, tanks used to pass by my house every morning,” Kim says. “I never understood why people are trained to kill each other. The military trains you to kill people, but I always felt like I didn’t want to kill anyone or anything.”
As South Korea has remained technically at war with its neighbor, all able-bodied men are required by law to complete a 21-month term in the military. In 2006, when it came time for Kim to begin preparing for his time in the military, he fled, first to Australia then to Canada, where in 2009 he was granted refugee status in what some are calling a landmark case.
He argued that as a homosexual, his human rights would be violated in the military.
“I thought that if I refused to join the military I would be put in jail and face a risk to my security because I’m gay,” he says. “I objected to the military and feared for life in the military, both on moral grounds and because I am gay.”
Each year, about 300,000 men are conscripted into the South Korean military and riot police forces. About 1,000 refuse to serve and face 18 months imprisonment.
The prospect that South Korean soldiers may be asked to use lethal force, according to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), may provide a legal basis for objection to combat duty. The U.N. Human Rights Committee general comment 22 has stated that while “the Covenant does not explicitly refer to a right to conscientious objection… such a right can be derived from article 18, inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force may seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one’s religion or belief.”
According to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada’s ruling on Kim’s case, “Thirty to 40 percent of Korean conscripts are victims of physical punishment. Moreover, around 60 percent of all causes of deaths in the South Korean Army are suicides.”
South Korea's military has come under fire in recent years for the harsh treatment its soldiers sometimes receive. There have, for example, been cases of violent attacks by distraught soldiers in which mistreatment by higher-ranking soldiers is believed to have been a key motivating factor.
In 2005, a South Korean private tossed a grenade at a military post on the DMZ at the North Korean border and used a firearm to kill eight soldiers.