Beleagured Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea get sympathetic treatment in New York Times

Jehovah’s Witnesses are notoriously tough to interview.

They didn’t used to be. Back in the late 1980s while I was on the religion beat at the Houston Chronicle, I arranged for myself and a photographer to follow a team work its way, door by door, through a certain posh neighborhood. Other than the fact they tried to convert me and we got into an argument as to whether Easter should be a Christian festival, it was an enlightening time. I was amazed at how rude people were to these visitors and how many doors were literally slammed in their faces.

But in 2012, when I assigned students in my religion journalism class at the University of Maryland to find a JW team to follow around, I learned that no Witnesses could talk with us now unless their New York headquarters allowed them to. And I could never get anyone from New York to answer my calls.

Which is why this New York Times story of the horrors that Witnesses face when refusing military service in South Korea was a real coup.

No doubt the Witnesses over there talked because they wanted to get word out about how bad things truly are in the Land of the Morning Calm. When reading this story, just take into account that it's unusual to get Witnesses to cooperate much with the media. The article starts out with:

SEOUL, South Korea -- Since he was a teenager, Kim Min-hwan knew he would have to make a choice: abandon his religious convictions or go to prison.
Mr. Kim is a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who for decades have faced jail terms as conscientious objectors under South Korea’s Military Service Act. Since his release from prison in 2013, Mr. Kim has found the stigma too great to find a meaningful job, though he was a chemical engineering major. He spends his days volunteering at the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters south of Seoul.
“I was predestined to become a convict because I believed in the creator,” Mr. Kim, 31, said in an interview. “I want South Korea to recognize that there are other, nonmilitary ways for us to serve the community.”
Over the years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a series of appeals asking the Constitutional Court to rule that the Military Service Act violates the constitutional right to freedom of conscience and religion. Hopes for an end to their travails rose in July, when the court held a public hearing on multiple appeals only four years after it had rejected similar petitions. The court is likely to rule on the matter before the end of the year.

One bit thing that’s totally missing from this piece -- believe it or not -- is an explanation of why JWs believe it’s evil to go to war. They are one of the few groups in the world today that literally follow the early church’s prohibitions against armed combat. The Romans conscripted soldiers back then, so it was an issue until the fourth century.

There's more. The article also explains that one of the torments the South Koreans have inflicted on JWs is forcing them to undergo blood transfusions although -- once again -- the Times team doesn’t explain why the religion forbids them. Those of us who cover religion know this, but I’m not sure if the typical New York Times reader is familiar with such doctrinal details.

There is little else to criticize in this piece, as it’s highly readable, has good quotes and brings to light the horrors these believers have endured for decades. It also explains why being a conscientious objector doesn’t fly in Korean society where citizens see themselves as in a perpetual state of war with North Korea, hence no one gets let off of military service.

But there are some interesting holes in this piece that would have could have been filled.

This article is much more about South Korea than it is about the Witnesses. Details about the religion itself were so slight, that you could have substituted any other pacifist group (Quakers, Mennonites) in there and the story would have read the same. One sentence of statistics about JWs in Korea, i.e. how many of them exist in the country (about 100,000) and whether their numbers are growing, would have been helpful.

A report by Fox TV in 2014 said South Korea is the world’s top jailer of conscientious objectors at 600 a year. That is another bit of info that, if still true, would have added more to this story. It's important to give some context. A video on the Witnesses' website says more than 18,000 male Witnesses have been imprisoned for this reason in South Korea.

And I would have liked to have seen some mention about how JWs have fared in other countries. I got to visit Greece in 1993 to look into how the non-Orthodox fare in Greek society. One of the biggest complaints I encountered was the government’s rough treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to fight. Witnesses were regularly imprisoned for three years or more until 1997 when the government introduced alternate service. Armenia is another country that has given the Witnesses a hard time although recently it stopped jailing them.

So, kudos for a piece on an unusual religious group that rarely gets coverage. But next time, try telling us a bit more about this faith and why governments around the world have at one time or another thrown many of its followers into jail.

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