SEOUL — Last week, a U.S. soldier who claimed conscientious-objector status while on leave from his unit in Iraq was convicted by a military court of desertion. Now, in South Korea, an unprecedented court ruling allowing three South Korean young men to skip mandatory military service because of their religious beliefs is threatening the military’s decades-old conscription policy.

In South Korea, all men over the age of 20 are required to perform two years of military service. They can choose, within a few years, when to complete the service, though most go during their university years or just before. The policy, government officials say, is necessary to maintain the defense of South Korea — its standing military of 600,000 men is nearly doubled by North Korea’s.

But the Seoul District Court’s dismissal of criminal charges against the three — who are Jehovah’s Witnesses — set off a swift negative reaction from the public. According to several opinion polls, including a Gallup Poll done in the days after the verdict, 75 percent of South Koreans opposed the verdict, with 13 percent supporting it and 12 percent saying they weren’t sure what to think.

Most of those who opposed the verdict expressed fears that the ruling will give rise to a new generation of young men who feign religious devotion simply to avoid service, Gallup found. The verdict also drew ire because of its timing: It was announced just as the Korean media began reporting the deployment of 2nd Infantry Division troops to Iraq.

But the judge in the case is standing by his ruling.

“This decision may be disturbing to our society, but our human rights ensure freedom of conscience, and this proves that our society has matured,” Lee Jung-lyul said.

One of the objectors, a 22-year-old student named Oh Tae-yang, called for a system of mandatory service that did not require military or police service. The Ministry of Defense quickly rejected that notion, saying the conscription program was critical to the nation’s defense. In recent years, some South Koreans have had giant tattoos done on their bodies; military rules prevent tattoos, but the men were conscripted anyway and sent to administrative jobs.

Under South Korean law, refusal to serve in the military could result in a three-year jail term. According to the military’s Conscription Office, only 600 of the 300,000 eligible conscripts each year try to avoid service.

In the U.S. case, 28-year-old Camilo Mejia was convicted of desertion and sentenced to a year in jail and a bad-conduct discharge.

Mejia said he left his Florida National Guard unit while on mid-tour leave as a protest against the “oil-driven” war in Iraq; he turned himself in to the Army in March and sought conscientious objector status.

Antiwar groups in the United States have reported an increase in calls from servicemembers since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began. The “GI Rights Hotline,” a service run by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, an Oakland, Calif., group that offers free counselling to servicemembers, says it now receives 3,500 calls a month, nearly double what it got two years ago.

According to the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, there were an estimated 3,500 conscientious objectors in World War I; 37,000 in World War II; 4,300 in the Korean War; more than 200,000 during the Vietnam War; and 111 during the 1991 Gulf War.

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