Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application
The Constitution of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), first introduced in 1948 and revised in 1987, guarantees for all citizens freedom of conscience (article 19) and freedom of religion (article 20). Article 11 bans all forms of discrimination on the basis of religion at the political, economic, social or cultural levels. There is no recognised state religion and article 20 of the constitution officially upholds the principle of the separation of Church and state.
Under article 37, freedoms set out in the constitution may only be restricted by law when necessary for national security, law and order, or public welfare, and any restriction must not violate the “essential aspect” of freedom.
The law does not require religious organisations to register; from an organisational point of view, they are completely autonomous. Religious groups can register to obtain legal recognition as authorised by local authorities. The procedure to register as a religious group can vary according to local bylaws. The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism’s Office of Religious Affairs is responsible for relations with the country’s larger religious groups like the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and the Christian Council of Korea. The Religious Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism is tasked with supporting interreligious dialogue and activities.
Religion cannot be taught in public schools but there is total freedom in private schools. The only religious statutory holidays are Christmas and the Buddha’s birthday.
South Korean law requires all male citizens to enlist in the military between the ages of 20 and 30, for 21 to 24 months.[ There is no provision in law for alternative service or conscientious objection. Those who refuse military service risk a maximum three-year prison sentence. After more than 18 months in prison, conscientious objectors are no longer required to serve in the military nor are they under any obligation to perform reserve duties or liable for fines or other penalties. By contrast, those who served but refuse reserve duties are liable to fines. Every year there are several call-ups for reserve duties for a period of eight years. Each jurisdiction imposes its own fines, on average 200,000 Korean won (US$166) for a first conviction with a maximum of 2,000,000 won (US$1,662) per conviction. Courts can impose prison terms on repeat offenders (from one day to three years) in lieu of fines.
According to Watchtower International, a Jehovah’s Witnesses-affiliated non-governmental organisation (NGO), 495 Jehovah’s Witnesses were in prison for conscientious objection to military service as of August 2016, another 367 were on trial and 41 under investigation, an increase in the total number of cases from the previous year. The US State Department Office of International Religious Freedom reports that two other district courts, and a court of appeals, ruled in favour of recognising the rights of conscientious objectors. The two district courts also petitioned the Constitutional Court to look at the constitutionality of the law regulating conscientious objection.
In May 2018, a district court in Incheon acquitted a Jehovah’s Witness and upheld his right to conscientious objection, ruling that freedom of conscience is a fundamental right related to the value of human dignity as protected by the constitution. For Judge Lee Dong-gi, “The defendant and conscientious objectors with religious beliefs intend to carry out noncombat alternative service that is more difficult and longer than military service.” For this reason, “His level of violating law and order is different from other draft dodgers.”
With the exception of the issue of conscientious objectors to military service, there appear to be no other infringements or violations of freedom of religion or belief in South Korea.
Prospects for freedom of religion
With constitutional protections and the democratic system well established, and a positive track record in upholding the right to freedom of religion or belief, the prospects for freedom of religion in South Korea are very good. Indeed, among countries in Asia, South Korea remains – whatever other faults it may have – a beacon of democracy, human rights and freedom of religion in the region.
Endnotes / Sources
 Korea (Republic of)’s Constitution of 1948 with Amendments through 1987, constituteproject.org, https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Republic_of_Korea_1987.pdf?lang=en, (accessed 10th June 2018).
 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “Korea, Republic of”, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2016/, (accessed 10th June 2018).
 “Court finds conscientious objector not guilty,” The Korea Herald, 7th May 2018, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20180507000086, (accessed 10th June 2018).