The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that religious and conscientious beliefs are to be considered valid reasons for refusing the military service mandate, overturning its decision from 14 years ago.
In a 9-4 vote, the full bench led by Chief Justice Kim Meong-su delivered the decision and ordered an appellate court to retry the case of Oh Seung-hun, effectively stating that the appellant should be cleared of the conviction.
Thursday's ruling potentially allows for 227 other similar cases pending at the top court and some 930 conscientious objectors currently on trial in Korea to avoid criminal convictions for disobeying the mandate and to replace their duties with alternative services.
"Punishing (conscientious objectors) for refusing the conscription on grounds of religious faith, in others words, freedom of conscience, is deemed an excessive constraint to an individual's freedom of conscience ... and goes against democracy that stands for tolerance of minorities," the court ruled.
The latest ruling follows the Constitutional Court's June 28 ruling that recognized for the first time the need for alternative service for conscientious objectors.
Oh has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to do his military duty, which applies to all able-bodied men in the country. He has argued he is a Jehovah's Witness and serving in the Army is against his religious faith.
"This verdict was possible thanks to the patience of my predecessors and colleagues totaling some 20,000 people," Oh told reporters. "I hope there will also be forward-looking and positive rulings in about 930 pending cases too."
Oh said he's well-aware of concerns that conscientious objection could be abused as a means to dodge military service and he will try to carry out alternative service in a sincere manner so as to dispel such concerns.
The lower trial courts have increasingly handed down not-guilty verdicts for conscientious objectors since the first ruling in 2016.
The current Military Service Act stipulates that objectors face up to three years in prison. Since the 1950s, about 19,000 conscientious objectors have been arrested and served time, mostly 18 months in jail.
In all three past hearings, the top court ruled in favor of the law and found the defendant guilty. The court had cited that military obligation takes precedence over individual freedom of conscience, as the two Koreas are technically at war, since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty. Thursday's ruling reversed these decisions.
Public hearings have been held on the issue since the latest Constitutional Court's ruling. Experts and lawmakers are leaning toward the idea of working at public institutions, such as state prisons or fire stations, for twice the length of the term.