Conscientious objector (CO) Sang-Min Lee, a member of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul, South Korea, is free. He was released from prison on July 30, after serving 15 months of an 18-month sentence for refusing military service. The time he spent as a barber in the prison system was credited as additional time served.
News of Lee’s stand for peace travelled quickly through Mennonite channels garnering messages of support from individuals and churches around the world during his imprisonment.
Military service is mandatory in South Korea. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) was imposed between North and South Korea in 1953 following the Korean War, creating a divided country for the first time in Korea’s recorded history. It serves as a reminder that the Korean War has not ended; a peace treaty was never ratified.
The 4-kilometre wide, 250-kilometre-long DMZ holds the distinction of being the most heavily militarized border in the world. The tension of separation has been constant since 1953 and periodically flares up as in recent border incidents on land or sea.
“In light of this reality and threat, military service in South Korea is viewed as a true patriotic duty and necessity, one more associated with defense of land and family than with military aggression,” says Tim Froese, who is now Mennonite Church Canada executive minister, Witness. Froese lived in South Korea for six years.
More than 660 COs were jailed each year from 2012 to 2014 for their refusal to participate in South Korean military service. Most of them have been Jehovah’s Witnesses; Lee is the first Mennonite CO in the country.
Mennonite Church Canada is responding to this and other peace issues through the efforts of workers Bock Ki Kim and Sook Kyoung Park. They work closely with the Korea Anabaptist Fellowship, which includes Grace and Peace Mennonite Church, and the Korea Anabaptist Center which produces and distributes Anabaptist resources for Korean Christians.
In a letter written to supporters prior to his release and translated by Abby Long, Lee noted that he changed during his time in prison. “Above all, I talk less. I don’t know if it’s because of the solitary life I’ve lived since last summer, but it seems like my speech has really disappeared.”
He also acquired the habit of writing with a pen because there was no access to computers. “It seems like a good habit to have. Writing letters that way is good of course, but I’ve also found that writing things down in a little notebook is also nice. Later on it seems like it will be something valuable.”
To learn more about the Mennonite presence in South Korea, see http://news.mennonitechurch.ca/south-koreas-anabaptist-way.