South Korea has the dubious distinction of being the only nation that does not recognize conscientious objectors (those who will not serve in the military out of the belief, usually religious, that serving in the military is immoral. Over the last century more and more nations have recognized sincere conscientious objectors and allowed them to do alternative service, either in the military or as a civilian. For example Germany has long allowed conscientious objectors perform alternate service by doing menial jobs in hospitals and old age homes for as long (or a bit longer) than they would have served in uniform.
In South Korea about one or two percent of those conscripted claim to be conscientious objectors and these days most are. Few young South Korean men fake being a conscientious objector. That because nearly all conscientious objectors serve 18 months in prison. That’s an improvement, as during the Cold War some served up to seven years in jail. Since 1950 South Korea has prosecuted over 17,000 conscientious objectors.
A growing number of South Korean voters are willing to try the Western concept of “alternative service. Even Russia adopted such a policy in 2002, although the Soviet Union did recognize conscientious objectors until 1939, when growing fear of war led to declaring conscientious objectors criminals, a situation that continued for over 60 years.