SangMin Lee, Conscientious Objector
It was one of the passages narrating the week of Jesus’ passion that first led SangMin Lee to consider the way of peace. Soon after he became a Christian, Lee was moved by Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies, especially his rebuke to Peter for defending him with a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane.
As he learned more about the Christian faith, Lee’s commitment to the gospel of peace deepened, putting him on a collision course with the Korean government. SangMin Lee, a 27-year-old member of the Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul, South Korea, went to trial because of his refusal to fulfill his required military service.
Since the Korean War began in 1950, South Korea has required all able-bodied men to serve for a period of time in its armed forces, with no option for alternative service. In 1953, the war ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, meaning that the peninsula is technically still at war. Indeed, fears of a potential invasion from North Korea remain high.
SangMin Lee become the first Mennonite in South Korea to be imprisoned for his convictions. In an interview, SangMin Lee noted that the training and culture of the military are inherently violent. Being a willing participant in that structure, he said, would change who he is, making him “a victim as well as an offender.”
On the basis of his criminal record, SangMin Lee recognized that he would have “a bad reputation in society” and would likely be barred from many career paths for the rest of his life. Even more painful for him was the realization that his decision would bring him into serious conflict with his family. “I fear that my family will fall apart because of my decision,” Lee said.
Yet he remained confident in his convictions. “I want the next generation to live in a better place with respect to individual choices and decisions,” he said.
In April 2014, SangMin Lee was sentenced to 18 months in prison for his faith-based refusal to fulfill the required military service. The global church and others who resonated with SangMin Lee’s peace witness responded by writing him letters and praying for him. Over the course of a letter-writing campaign supported by Bearing Witness, Justapaz, and Mennonite World Conference, at least 48 people from nine different countries committed to writing letters to SangMin over the course of his imprisonment.
The prayers of many were answered as SangMin Lee was released from prison on 30 July 2015 –three months early! SangMin Lee’s service in the prison’s barber shop was credited to his 18-month prison term, allowing him to leave earlier than his sentence dictated.
SangMin’s case was an example of the possibilities of international collaboration around the issue of conscientious objection. Bearing Witness initiated the letter-writing campaign, Mennonite World Conference frequently sent out prayer requests to the global church during SangMin’s trial, and Justapaz connected SangMin with conscientious objectors in Colombia who also face hardships for their stance against military service.
At the age of 35, SangMin died 14 August 2022 due to a bicycle accident. He is survived by his wife Song Sem and a young son.
“I’m trying to live a normal life, find a simpler answer to how to live,” he said about half a year after his release in late 2015 at an event hosted by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and Goshen College. “I try to be thankful for every day and make each day as important as the last.”
—Elizabeth Miller A version of this story was first published on www. martyrstories.org. Used with permission. Updated in 2023 by Ebenezer Mondez.