By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Koreans on Thursday fiercely debated a government plan to allow conscientious objectors to work in prisons instead of mandatory military duty in a country still technically at war with North Korea.
South Korea is one the few countries in the world that has compulsory conscription for all able-bodied men.
They must complete 18 to 22 months of duty as part of the South's military deterrent since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a formal peace treaty.
But there are growing challenges for military service as tensions have eased between the Koreas and the male birth rate falls in the South.
After a Constitutional Court ruling in June said conscientious objectors need an alternative to military service, the defence ministry explored allowing them to live and work in correctional facilities for three years.
Critics said the prison proposal was punitive, prompting the defence ministry to consider allowing objectors to work at fire stations and limit their service to 27 months.
The ministry hosted a public hearing in the capital Seoul on Thursday where the crowd engaged a vigorous debate.
Kim Soo-jung, a lawyer who has defended several objectors, said a three-year work term in prison failed to take advantage of the varied talents of objectors.
"There are doctors among the objectors and these people have all kinds of different capabilities," Kim said.
"Putting everyone in prison for a long time is not a win-win approach," she added.
A conservative activist shouted that Kim was not qualified to speak on the issue because she is a woman.
Lee Yong-seok, a peace activist who was jailed for three years for refusing military service, called for more options for objectors. Others at the meeting questioned the fairness of allowing them to avoid military duty.
One woman who has a son serving in the military drew applause and cheers when she asked why objectors should have options that were not available to regular draftees.
Lee Nam-woo, deputy defence minister for personnel, welfare, health and mobilisation, said the ministry will make a decision after considering various public opinions.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Josh Smith and Darren Schuettler)