Yeda Lee, 23, lives in a flat with three other Koreans in the Parisian suburbs of Creteil.
He lives on the 16th floor of a nondescript building between other apartment blocks and children’s playgrounds. From the kitchen balcony, Yeda points out Paris’ Montparnasse Tower, visible in the distance.
After stints at a guest house, a homeless shelter, on the streets, and in social housing, Yeda has finally found a place he can call home.
Unlike his flatmates, who are in Paris on student visas, Yeda is here because he fled his country. He did not come with a French proficiency test in hand or with a steady allowance from his family. He arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport with 400 euros and the goal of applying for asylum. Yeda is the first South Korean conscientious objector to be granted political asylum in France*.
The two Koreas are still technically at war. The South has an active conscription system that obliges all able-bodied men to serve at least 21 months in the army followed by enrolment as reservists.
“It’s not for religious reasons or for my sexual orientation. I just don’t want to go because if I go against my beliefs I would feel like a collaborator,” Yeda says.
The young man cites pacifist reasons why he cannot support South Korea’s army. Crimes such as the Ha My massacre during the Vietnam War are examples of why he does not want to participate in the military. During the war, South Koreans fought alongside the Americans, participating in the controversial conflict in the context of the Cold War. In the winter of 1968, the Korean army killed 135 children, women and elders in a Vietnamese village. One month later, U.S. soldiers would carry out the My Lai massacre.
Between 2000 and 2004, 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned for refusing to join the army in South Korea. Although they represent the overwhelming majority of conscientious objectors, people of other religions or political beliefs, such as Yeda, also oppose taking up arms.
With criminal records, they have little chance in Korea’s tough job market. Public and large private-sector companies are known to ask for military documentation and refuse ex-convicts. Politicians must reveal the dates of when they and their sons served. To refuse conscription means not only an 18-month prison sentence but a condemnation to a life of social stigma.
The UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly accused South Korea of violating its “international commitments to respect fundamental human rights” by prosecuting and imprisoning conscientious objectors.
The state-run National Human Rights Commission has been pushing for an alternative for men who do not wish to engage in combat. For the past decade, the NHRC has been advocating an alternative civilian service, but to no avail.
“Korea is one of the last vestiges of the Cold War,” said a South Korean diplomat who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. The diplomat says that even though the two-year military service sets back young men in a highly competitive and international job market, “as long as there is a threat from North Korea, conscription should be maintained.”
In the past ten years, 50 South Koreans have been killed in border conflicts. Forty-six of them in one incident alone in the Yellow Sea. Most recently, the Yeonpyeong Island attack ended with the death of two South Korean marines, two civilians, and the destruction of around 70 houses.
Seoul, the 10-million-strong capital, lies only 56 kilometers away from North Korea, yet these bursts of violence with the North are sparse and most conscripts rarely engage in combat either on the peninsula or abroad.
For supporters, a rolling military service and a wealth of reservists are necessary because the country is still in danger.
“Korean citizens must uphold the four pillars of national duty: national defense, payment of taxes, education and employment,” says the diplomat.
“Those who refuse to uphold the pillar of national duty have no rights as Korean citizens any more… the Republic of Korea no longer has the duty to protect these individuals either.”
This official’s views are not isolated. They are reflected in Korean law.
Conscientious objection to military service is enshrined in international law in treaties that South Korea has signed. According to Amnesty International, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by the UN gives citizens the right to object to military service on the basis of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Yet the Republic of Korea not only refuses to create an alternative civilian service but also imprisons its conscientious objectors. In 2013, 93 percent of imprisoned conscientious objectors in the world were South Korean, according to a UNHRC report.
Although Yeda seriously considered prison, he decided instead to apply for asylum in France. He risks never being able to return to his homeland, but he says he has no qualms about leaving a country that did not give him the choice to live his life the way he wanted.
Even 8000 kilometers away in France, he is often challenged by Korean men and women about his decisions.
“At a dinner party in Paris, this Korean guy asked me if I knew anything about French culture and French values if I wanted to become French so bad.”
Although Yeda is ultimately thinking about applying for citizenship when the time comes, for now he is refugee – a person who fled his country to escape persecution.
“Obviously I’m new to this country. But I told him I don’t adhere to many Korean values either. I’m not French. I’m not Korean. I’m just Yeda.”
As for his family, modest small business owners from the city, this is not the life they had imagined for their son.
“I fought a lot with my mum before I left. She kept asking why I couldn’t do something that everyone else does.”
After months of explaining, he says that his mother understands his position and has learned a lot about the Korean army’s role in history. Still, she remains opposed to his decision to desert his country. His father, a stoic man and graduate of a military academy also originally disapproved of Yeda’s choice.
“But I’m happy here and I’m showing them this part of me.” Now he says that his father says he is proud of him for standing up to his principles. Yeda’s younger sister also looks up to her brother.
“I guess they’ll come and see me one day if they can afford it.”
Although the young man will most probably never be able to return to South Korea, he says that he has no regrets.
As a refugee, Yeda’s case is unique, but Korean society’s views are changing in his favor. In a November 2014 Gallup poll, 68 percent of surveyed Koreans agreed with the creation of an alternative form of civilian service – up from 35.5 percent in 2007.
Yena Lee is a postgraduate student in Journalism and International Affairs at Sciences Po/Paris Institute of Political Science.
*Corrected from the original, which incorrectly claimed that Mr. Lee is the first “political refugee” in France.