South Korean CO asks: “Can I kill?”

GOSHEN, Indiana, USA — When 27-year-old SangMin Lee, a Mennonite conscientious objector from South Korea, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, the global Mennonite church community provided support in the form of letters and prayers. In early December 2015, Lee spoke with supporters at the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and Goshen College and at College Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana, USA.

Lee, who was released from prison in July, said being a conscientious objector in South Korea helped him to understand and practice peace “in a more concrete and tangible way.”

Lee spoke in Korean, with translation by Goshen resident SeongHan Kim.

After growing up in a Christian home and attending a Christian college, Lee came across conscientious objection in an article in 2007.

“The article talked about how God so loved the world,” said Lee, “but then I asked myself, ‘How can we care for each other in the name of God?’

“I began to ask myself, ‘Can I kill someone?’

“In South Korea, it’s military or prison,” says Lee. The only alternative service option requires weeks of military training and service in the reserves.

Some 660 conscientious objectors– nearly 93 percent of imprisoned COs worldwide – are jailed each year in South Korea.

It took seven years for Lee to go through the conviction process after refusing military service. He needed Christian support to continue in his struggle, so in 2009, Lee transferred to Grace and Peace Mennonite Church, Seoul, South Korea, who eventually reached out to the global community for support.

MWC Commission members John D. Roth (Faith & Life) and Jenny Neme (Peace), directors of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism (which runs the Bearing Witness Stories Project) and Justapaz (a Colombian Mennonite peace and human rights organization), respectively, organized a letter-writing campaign.

In the months leading up to his trial, Mennonite World Conference circulated Lee’s story, and letters came rushing in.

The letters that meant the most to Lee were the ones sent to him through Justapaz from conscientious objectors in Colombia.

“Receiving their support and encouragement was very moving,” Lee said.

A ‘simple answer’

On 30 July 2015, Lee was released three months earlier than planned. However, his prison conviction has closed off professional pathways. Lee studied childhood education but will not be able to find work as a teacher. He hopes to find work as a mechanic at a bike shop in Seoul.

“The relationship with my parents has been the most difficult,”?Lee said. “In Korean culture, the relationship between kids and parents is very strong. My parents expressed anger and harsh words at first, but they have come to better understand and appreciate my view on what it means to follow Christ.”

“I’m trying to live a normal life, find a more simple answer to how to live,” he said. “I try to be thankful for every day and make each day as important as the last.”

—by Madeline Birky, originally published in the Mennonite World Review. Used with permission.