SEOUL - It is the moment that Kwak Byoung-ho knew would eventually come.
The 21-year-old conscript says good-bye to his mother and grandmother just ahead of his induction into South Korea’s armed forces.
“It is exciting, but I am also a little nervous about starting,” says Kwak, speaking in the presence of military personnel.
South Korea maintains a 600-thousand-strong military, made up mostly of young recruits like Kwak, a legacy of the country’s unfinished war with North Korea. Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces — depending upon the specific branch — a period longer than most countries require.
For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence comes along with that tradition.
According to reports by BBC, in July of 2011, "a marine corporal shot and killed four of his comrades," later saying that he had been bullied.
But recent reports say complaints of abuse in South Korea’s armed forces are on the rise.
This summer has seen at least 4 conscript suicides that may have been tied to hazing. In June, a sergeant went on a deadly shooting spree, reportedly as revenge for repeated bullying, killing five men in his unit before attempting to kill himself. In July, the death of a conscript named Yoon Seung-joo was blamed on beatings dealt out by his fellow soldiers.
Six men now stand trial inside this military courthouse for causing that soldier’s death, and a verdict is expected soon.
Prosecutors say the victim never spoke up about what he was going through.
Yoon’s mother, Ahn Mi-ja, wishes he had not stayed silent.
“I did not know what was going on, so when the military told me that my son had died, I did not believe it," she said. "It was not until I saw the bruises on his body that I found out what had really happened.”
Lim Tae-hoon, whose Military Human Rights Center exposed the alleged violence behind Yoon’s death, says South Korea’s military needs reform in order to stop systemic abuses.
“Harsher punishments for violent soldiers need to be handed down," he said via translator. "That will prevent more violence from happening.”
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense declined an interview request, but officials have publicly stated that this kind of violence within military barracks will not be tolerated. They also say they've encouraged abused soldiers to speak out.
After saying good-bye to her newly conscripted grandson, Ji Chae-soon admits that the reports of violent bullying have been on her mind.
“I have worried a lot about that, but I hear the situation is improving for soldiers, so now my mind is a little more at ease,” she says.
Before marching off to begin his training, her grandson said not to worry — that if he does get bullied he will not stay silent about it.