SEOUL, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- A Seoul court ruled that individuals' conscientious or religious beliefs are justifiable reasons to refuse military service and the state cannot criminalize them.
The Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday overturns its 2004 decision that found conscientious objectors, who refuse to perform the country's mandatory military service, violate the national Military Service Act.
Seoul's high court saw that a 34-year-old man, known to be a Jehovah's Witness, not guilty on Thursday. He was accused of refusing obligatory military service and sentenced to an 18-month prison term in an earlier trial.
"Criminal punishment breaches the freedom of conscience and a threat to fundamental rights," the court said.
Nine judges of the Supreme Court said individual conscience or religion is a valid reason to refuse military service, while four disagreed.
"The decision will cause confusion when there is no immediate plan to change the existing law or regulations," judge Park Sang-ock said.
The National Human Rights Commission welcomed the Thursday ruling.
"This will put an end to the painful history during which some 20,000 conscientious objectors have been punished since the 1950s. It will also resolve unstable situations that conscientious objectors have endured throughout their trials," said the NHRC.
The ruling is expected to affect a total of 227 cases involving conscientious objectors, according to Yonhap News.
Nearly 2,700 men refused to serve in the military from 2013 to 2017, most on religious grounds, according to the Military Manpower Administration. Conscientious objectors serve an 18-month prison term instead and are given a criminal record.
In June, the Constitutional Court also ruled that punishing those who object based on personal beliefs is a violation of freedom of conscience and conscientious objectors should be given an alternative way to meet obligatory service.
All able-bodied South Korean men between the age of 18 to 35 must fulfill mandatory military service.