Taking a stand against war

Canadians create video of South Korea's first Mennonite CO

January 29, 2014 | Young Voices
Rachel Bergen | Young Voices Co-editor

A Korean Mennonite is facing prison time for refusing to participate in South Korea’s mandatory two-year military term due to his religious convictions.

Lee Sang Min, a 27-year-old member of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul, is the first Mennonite to oppose military service as a conscientious objector (CO) in South Korea, where there are no alternative service options for pacifists.

Two Canadian Mennonites living near Seoul are doing their utmost to help him. Heather Schellenberg, 27, and Michael Harms, 25, from Home Street Mennonite Church in Winnipeg heard his testimony at Grace and Peace one Sunday and decided his message of peace needed to be spread.

The married couple who teach English at Connexus Language Institute both graduated from Canadian Mennonite University and have Mennonite contacts in Winnipeg, so they decided to make a video of Sang Min’s story and send it home.

“I remember reading about conscientious objectors in my Anabaptist Beginnings class at CMU and thinking this difficult decision was something of the past,” says Schellenberg. “After having heard his story, I thought people back home may be interested in hearing more about it.”

If found guilty at his trial this month, Lee will likely to spend a year-and-a-half in prison. He will have a criminal record for the rest of his life and faces ostracism for his stand.

Lee says this decision was difficult, especially the impact it will have on his family. In the 13-minute video, he says, “I worry about that part and my parents especially worry. . . . But I know I am confident in my decision.”

He is likely the only Mennonite CO in South Korea, but there are many Christian objectors imprisoned there. According to a recent UN report, of the 723 COs imprisoned worldwide, 669, or 92.5 percent, are incarcerated in South Korea.

“Being a part of the military structure makes me a victim and an offender without a choice,” Lee says in the video.

Connexus is part of a network of organizations that works alongside the Korea Peace Institute. Institute director Jae Young Lee explains Korea’s militaristic culture in an e-mail: “These challenges are old issues for most Mennonites. It's what they learn in the textbooks about their ancestors. Here, it's a reality. Being a Christian pacifist in Korea is a difficult thing.” Opposing military service in South Korea is seen as betrayal and sympathy with North Korea, he says, which is why it is taken so seriously.

Schellenberg and Harms say objection to military service is rare, so his CO status will mean very little to the government. “His decision will likely have very little impact for the bigger picture of military objection in South Korea, but it's clearly an important issue for Grace and Peace Mennonite Church,” they say in an e-mail.

There are many young men and boys facing the possibility of military service in the coming months and years. Lee is determined to follow through with his decision in the hopes that other pacifists can choose an alternative to military service, rather than prison.

The video will be presented in a Mennonite history class at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, Winnipeg, in February. It is meant to offer a modern-day understanding of the persecution many Mennonites endured in Europe, which forced them to emigrate to escape conscription.

--Posted Jan. 29, 2014

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