In search of a few good judges
Yun Yeong-hun, age 30, otherwise known as Daejeon Prison’s prisoner No. 436, recently wrote to the Hankyoreh. Yun is a Jehovah’s Witness who conscientiously objected to completing his mandatory military service.
“I received my MBA in the United States and made the decision to return to Korea. Since it was already expected that I would be heading straight for jail when I arrived, my American friends cried and hugged me and I still remember the looks on their faces. I had a few job offers and there were even women who wanted to marry me, but I wanted to quietly return to Korea and assert my innocence as a law-abiding citizen…I asked that I be allowed to defend myself while not being held under arrest but was arrested right there on the spot in court. My request for bail was rejected. The judge said it was because I might take flight. That’s something for the gossip column, isn’t it? Someone who is supposed to ’take flight’ overseas has just voluntarily returned to Korea just to show up in court.”
Why did he return to a fatherland where only a tiny prison cell awaited him? I wrote back:
Over the course of studying American law, I’ve been surprised a few times. It seems the Jehovah’s Witnesses keep showing up in the precedents. A typical case would be West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, from 1943, in which the Supreme Court declared the West Virginia board of education’s rule calling for students who refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance to be expelled as unconstitutional. Look at this beautiful decision by Justice Robert Jackson:
’We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.’
The Jehovah’s Witnesses tested the limits of rights and freedom within American social norms and constitutional protections. It was a question of what attitude the American courts were going to take, and their “problematic behavior” led to greater universal rights and freedoms, especially in the area of conscience and freedom of expression.
That being the case, have there been no judgments in favor of conscientious objectors like you? The answer can be found in a petition written on your behalf and submitted to the court by an American civil servant. All it says is that when he was drafted during the Vietnam War, he was given an exemption for religious reasons and given the opportunity to work at a hospital instead. Some 31 countries have similar programs for conscientious objectors, and in Germany it is even a constitutional guarantee.
You are in prison because you want to maintain your religious conscience. There is a bill before the National Assembly that would allow alternatives to military service, but as you well know, politicians are not interested in the civil rights of people who are in the minority and don’t offer many votes. The fastest way to resolve the situation would be to find a good judge, one who is faithful to his mission to defend basic rights. Like William Brennan, the Supreme Court Justice who died right about this time nine years ago, who wrote these beautiful words:
’Due process asks whether government has treated someone fairly, whether individual dignity has been acknowledged… it may be essential that officials possess passion – the passion that puts them in touch with the dreams and disappointments of those with whom they deal, the passion that understands the pulse of life beneath the official version of events.’
I’d like to say the same thing to the Korean judges who are so deeply fond of money and wine and golf. It’d like to say it to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court justices who retire to make big money as lawyers. What were you thinking when you decided to return to a place ruled by people in law who are so lacking in depth?