All South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 must serve, but the country's Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that the government must provide alternative civilian roles for religious or political reasons to those who refuse to arms take.
"The state can no longer delay solving this problem," the court said in a 6-3 ruling, stating that Article 5 of the country's military service law was unconstitutional because it did not provide non-military options.
It gave the government and parliament until the end of 2019 to revise the law.
South Korea is imprisoning more conscientious objectors than the rest of the world, according to Amnesty International, with hundreds imprisoned each year, many of them Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to serve on their religious beliefs.
More than 230 conscientious objectors are currently in prison, the group said. Most receive sentences of around 18 months, but face lifelong discrimination once released.
In a statement after the verdict, Amnesty researcher Hiroka Shoji said he sends a "clear message that conscientious objection is a human right."
"Conscientious objection is not a crime and we urge the government to leave In addition, all conscientious objectors should have their criminal records erased and these young men languishing in jail should be released immediately and unconditionally," Shoji said.
Under current South Korean law, all men between the ages of 18 and 35 must serve at least 21 months of military service. The Ministry of Defense has agreed to shorten the deadline to 18 months by 2020.
The law has destroyed the careers of many of the nation's biggest sports stars and K-pop artists, with the hugely popular boy band Big Bang having a break recently.
Many members of the South Korean men's national football team who have knocked champions Germany out of the World Cup this week may also be forced into the military, although several petitions have been tabled on the official Blue House website, which President Moon Jae is pushing give the football players an official leave.
Those who have no chance of a pardon by the president are turning to more drastic measures: Many young men deliberately gain or lose weight, fake mental illness, get full-body tattoos or self-injures to obtain a waiver Yonhap News Agency.
Surprising medical examinations can be ordered for anyone suspected of changing their weight, and those who feel guilty about avoiding service can have legal consequences.
There has been widespread public criticism in the past, such as the children of government officials who find loopholes to avoid military service.
Yoo Seung-jun, a very popular singer in the 1990s, had to give up his career in South Korea after being accused of evading military service as a US citizen. He is still forbidden to enter South Korea.
Obscenity in principle
While most South Korean men are either willing or because they are all exhausting other options, they eventually do their military service For some, this is not an acceptable option.
South Korea is a country that is still at war after a 1953 ceasefire that ended on the peninsula has never been converted into a formal peace treaty. Thanks to Moon and US President Donald Trump's meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, important steps have been taken to counteract the potential for military service to be condemned to battle and death.
This is unacceptable for pacifists or those whose religious beliefs prohibit such action, but until the decision of the Constitutional Court this week, conscientious objectors had to face imprisonment if they refused to serve in the military.
"Many conscientious objectors are being punished twice because they are government-affiliated and many private companies refuse to prosecute applicants," attorney Baek Jong-keon, who himself was imprisoned for 12 months, and his legal permit for five Years revoked wrote last September.
Beyond violence, South Korean men have a very good reason to avoid military service: the army is notorious for the harassment and abuse suffered by many recruits.
In 2014, President Park Geun-hye urged action after photos of the injured and bloody body of a 20-year-old private detective were beaten and abused every day for one month before he died.
The hardships of many men in the military were at the core of an anti-feminist backlash against human rights groups in the #Metoo movement in South Korea, even though the country has made some progress in tackling sexual harassment
James Turnbull, one in Busan a resident expert on Korean feminism and popular culture, said that this response is "driven predominantly by the perceived injustice" of men serving, while women do not.
But he said that her time in the army is largely responsible for the negative attitudes and behavior that seeks to eradicate the #Metoo movement.
Korea ranked 118 out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2017 of the World Economic Forum, and women are strongly underrepresented in politics and business.
"It is difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent for young men," said Turnbull, many of whom join the military directly from the university and have little contact with women during that time, except female members. Pop groups playing on bases.
"This vision of women and men-women relationships that creates the combination – that the role of men is to do important work for the nation, while women stand apart, above all, through their youthful looks and sexual support Availability – is omnipresent in everyday Korean life. "
CNN's Ella Ha and Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.