Small Wars Journal

Land of the Morning Calm

Sun, 09/13/2015 - 2:27am

Land of the Morning Calm

Lance Brender


When I was a cadet at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU), I spent my Military Science III (junior) year wondering what I was going to branch after Advanced Camp.  A lot of things interested me and I felt the pressure to make a good choice.  Military Intelligence, MPs, and the Engineers all attracted me, but it was the Armor recruiter who fixed my attention with an infamous tagline: "would you rather carry your weapon--or have your weapon carry you?"  I was sold.

Well, half sold.  It was my Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) instructors that truly convinced me.  Nearly all of my instructors at PLU were Infantrymen and, while I had great respect for them, the majority of their stories centered on how bad their knees hurt after that that fifteenth year of service.  Armor officers stood in stark contrast.  They were often smiling, almost always had a crazy story about putting a tank where it should never have gone, and every single one of them had been to Korea.  In my mind, Korea became the Mecca of Armor officers.  In 2010, I made my hajj to Korea and served there for three years.  From experience, I can tell you that the "land of the morning calm" presents historical, professional, and lifestyle opportunities you will find nowhere else.  If you are considering a tour in Korea, I hope this article will help you make an informed decision.


Korea, or Hanguk as the South Koreans know it, occupies a peninsula extending from China towards Japan.  In 1910, the Japanese Emperor Meiji annexed Korea.1  Japanese occupation lasted until the empire’s surrender to Allied Forces in 1945, which created a division along the 38th parallel between the Soviet occupied north and the US occupied south.  Rising tensions between each state's political backers, an inability to finalize terms of independence, and a Soviet backed strategy of expansion set the conditions for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) to attack the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) on the 25th of June, 1950.

The war swung in wild extremes from a near complete communist victory at Pusan to a would-be Allied victory along the Yalu River at the Manchurian border.  The North and South concluded open warfare with a truce, not a peace treaty, and have remained technically at war ever since.

Neither the Republic of Korea nor the DPRK officially recognizes the other's political existence.  Both states lay total claim to the peninsula and its outlying islands, considering the other in something like a temporary state of rebellion.  Though the DPRK enjoyed superior economic strength in the 1970s, today the two countries stand in clear contrast: the ROK has a standard of living that rivals most Western countries while the North teeters on the edge of mass starvation.  The two countries threaten war annually.  This is where you come in.

Training in Korea

Korea is a completely unique operating environment for the United States Army.  It is the last bastion of the Cold War and a land filled with the incongruities of being at peace and in conflict at the same time.  Overall command belongs to United States Forces Korea (USFK).  USFK's most directly combat related subordinate is the 8th US Army, which as of 2014 is headquartered in Seoul on US Army Garrison (USAG) Yongsan.  The 8th US Army's principal combat force is the 2nd Infantry Division, headquartered on Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu.  If you are Armor, Infantry, or Field Artillery, you will almost undoubtedly serve in a rotational unit based on Camps Hovey or Casey in Dongducheon or permanently assigned to the Division Headquarters.  However, this comes with the understanding that within the next ten years you, like all US forces currently north of Seoul, will move to a new home in the city of Pyeontaek, which is located significantly south of the national capital.  But regardless of location, units in Korea have an extremely high operational tempo that, in my opinion, is second only to combat.

Combat units in Korea live in two worlds.  On the one hand, they have a very real, fanatical enemy north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  This enemy can launch a conventional, biological, or chemical attack in less than 12 hours and possesses nuclear arms, though in a nascent stage.  Understandably, units in Korea live by the mantra of readiness.  Monthly "alerts" are a norm.  These alerts usually occur in the middle of the night and consist of a total recall of personnel from wherever they are to readiness condition (REDCON) one within four hours.  45 day semiannual gunneries govern training calendars and personal schedules.  Training in Korea is serious and challenging.

However, units here are also firmly in garrison.  Stringent property accountability, officer and non-commissioned officer development programs, motivational breakfasts, safety stand downs, cultural fairs, near epidemic levels of alcoholism, and nightly battles with the red light districts known as "the Ville" dominate nearly every moment that is not spent in the field.

It is a taxing environment; however, it is anything but a bad one.  There are many outstanding reasons to lead in Korea.  The first is resourcing.  If you are in a combined arms battalion, a cavalry squadron, or any other unit that goes to gunnery, you succeeding on the range is a priority to everyone from 8th Army down.  Eight and a half out of every 12 months (90 days of training plus 45 of execution) are devoted to gunnery.  The four months between gunnery iterations as well as pockets of the gunnery training windows are interspersed with all of a unit's other events.

Training ammunition, while not plentiful, is almost always adequate to the task at hand.  Training areas are relatively easy to get at the company level for a resourceful commander.  Key sites like Dagmar North, Rooster Eight, and the Rodriguez Live Fire Complex offer leaders options from the austere to the high tech.  Lastly, the opportunity to work closely on the tactical level with the highly-competent Korean Army, not to mention your own Korean Augmentees to the US Army (KATUSAs), grants leaders wise enough to take advantage of it the chance to gain a truly diverse understanding of allied operations. 

Many battalion and above exercises in Korea are cyclical.  Gunneries, as previously mentioned, are planned for every six months.  To anticipate the cyclical nature of the training environment is to set yourself up for success.  In addition to gunneries, there are numerous division to theater level exercises that happen throughout the year, all of which reoccur annually.  The most notable exercises are arguably the Warpath series (I, II, and III) and Ulchi Freedom Guardian.

Even those living outside of Korea may already be tangentially familiar with these training events from the evening news.  Though US-Korean forces have conducted nearly identical iterations of these exercises for decades without resulting in an attack against the north, the DPRK annually threatens war over such "provocations."  Though any threat from a volatile regime such as the DPRK is worthy of note, long-time residents of Korea will confirm that idle bluster is a vital part of North Korea's strategy against the ROK and the US.

These large-scale exercises are predominantly virtual training events that simulate different possible scenarios, known as operational plans (OPLANS), of unrest on the Korean peninsula.  These exercises are conducted with Korean units under overall US command and frequently involve stateside reinforcements.  The exercises train commanders and staffs of both nations on the military decision making process within a certain scenario.  Though many Soldiers, particularly company grade officers, are tasked to perform a variety of support duties for these exercises, direct involvement below the company level is usually minimal.  Events like these present excellent "white space" opportunities for training at platoon and below. 

Leading in Korea

When training is done, though, there are notable issues that will keep you up at night.  Balancing garrison life with the unpredictability of preparing for a heavily armed adversary is not easy.  You will be challenged with the creation of training calendars that are relevant, achievable, and balanced with administrative necessities.  Though that is not really so different from any unit in the United States, all of your plans do have the notable differences of being in a foreign country and subject to a four-hour recall for actual combat on any day of the year.

Indiscipline will be a very real concern.  I had a saying while I was in command: people who drink in the US, drink to excess in Korea; people who drink to excess in the US, lose their careers in Korea.  For those interested in living in a unique part of the world, immersing in new cultures, and travelling, Korea is an all-expense paid year in the Orient.  To people who are not into that, it is 365 days of loneliness, stress, and skull-numbing boredom.  For many Soldiers, the chief relief is "the Ville."  The Ville is a local term for the questionable collection of bars and shops that form outside of US bases in Korea.  And while many of the businesses in the Ville might be normal bars, many certainly are not.

The majority of the less reputable pubs cater to young, lonely men by employing "juicy girls," who are usually attractive Philippine women.  These establishments are havens for underage drinking, prostitution, and human trafficking.  Juicy girls are usually recruited under false or misleading pretenses, work on commission based on how many drinks they sell to men, and are frequently not allowed to leave the bar except under repressive conditions (e.g., four hours on Sundays).  The unofficial expectation of buying a juicy girl a drink is she will give you a "girlfriend experience" for a period of time, which may or may not include outright prostitution.   The banned list at Camp Casey, where I was stationed, changed monthly.  Shops would get caught for selling alcohol to minors or for prostitution, be banned, change their name, and open again in 30 days.  I, and most other commanders, lost numerous weekends to at least one incident in the Ville.

Despite being the source of a number of UCMJ actions in Korea, the Ville has been tolerated for many reasons.  Some pragmatists say that Soldiers will seek these activities out anyway, so it might as well be close by and somewhat controlled.  Be that as it may, it is also true that the Ville is a tremendous source of money for some local figures, who lobby civil and military leaders to keep their establishments legal.  However, the core reason, in my opinion, has been that too many leaders were themselves in the Ville at nights.  Very few people are going to put bars off limits that they are regulars at.

Until recently, that is.  While it did force me to rewrite this article, something has gone very right in Korea.  As of the 15th of October, 2014, USFK has banned all "juicy bars" (bars where juicy girls are employed).2  In what I feel is a remarkable move, considering how unpopular the concept of a prohibition was with so many senior leaders and businessmen, the USFK commander has blacklisted all such institutions for their rampant human rights abuses.  While this policy will undoubtedly be difficult to enforce, I applaud it for sending the unequivocal moral message that sexual slavery is not something we condone.

Even with this victory, however, you will still have plenty to deal with as a leader.  Perhaps the most trying difficulty you will encounter is the scrutiny that the acts of misbehaving Soldiers generate.  Things that in the US could be handled routinely by civil and military authorities, such as fights or drunk driving, are all potential international incidents in Korea.  Historical tragedies like the "Highway 56 Incident," where two young girls were killed in a US convoy gone awry in 2002,3 resulted in public riots that saw American servicemen and civilians beaten on Korean subways.  Compounding matters, anti-US forces within the Korean government exploit any American military misconduct to call for the ouster of foreign troops.  Sensitivity to any political fallout places extreme pressure on senior commands which, in turn, places great stress on tactical commanders.  While difficult and unfortunate, this is not so much a problem to be solved as a reality to be accepted. 

Regardless of the challenges, though, the professional opportunities of Korea are not to be dismissed.  The freedom of maneuver, resourcing, and real-world mission make Korea an assignment of choice.  In few other places outside of drastically reduced deployments to the Middle East will you have the opportunity to lead in an environment that so desperately needs inventive and resourceful leaders.

Living in Korea

People who can see past the stress of work have a wonderful time in Korea.  Koreans are welcoming, eager to have their country appreciated, and generally favorable to Americans.  Korean culture is open and the standard of living is high.  The people, lifestyle, and opportunities for travel are in themselves reasons to spend a year in this country.

The people are what make Korea worth living in.  They are proud, industrious, extremely loyal to their families, and eager to be seen as worldly.  You will find that their culture is also group-oriented.  This is not to say that there is not personal independence, but public harmony is valued more highly than individuality.  Personal and family honor are extremely important.  Shameful acts, like being fired, doing poorly on an assignment, or indigence have lasting social repercussions that might take years to recover from, if ever.  Conversely, kindness and generosity are considered high virtues and are greatly appreciated in foreigners.

As was made clear in a training video on my third day in country, Korean society is racially homogenous and proud of it.  Unlike in America, where ethnic diversity is seen as a positive thing, most Koreans are very up front that they are all the same race and that is how they like it.  This is neither better nor worse than how we Americans view life, it is simply different.  It does not mean that you are not welcome but it does mean they will not consider you one of them.  You can be a close friend, an ally, even take citizenship, but you will still be a foreigner.

While Korea is a country that is easy to visit, it is difficult to truly integrate into.  Korean society is highly competitive.  In some ways, it is very much like US Army culture.  Imagine an entire society with a running order of merit list that has one winner--and then everybody else.  You will see this in the young Korean men and women you interact with.  They almost unconsciously rank order themselves, with one older or socially senior leader and his flock of followers.  Their culture is expressly geared towards finding a "number one."  Blending with the cultural predisposition for group over self, the Korean way to be number one is to do the same thing as everyone else, only better.  Doing something different from everyone else is seen as weird and has negative social repercussions.  Furthermore, in a society where only number one matters, the stress to succeed can be crushing.  One might say that this would yield a culture of high achievers, which it does.  Indeed, the emergence of Korea onto the world economic scene since the 1950s is a historic success story.  However, these societal expectations also yield a culture with the second highest rate of suicide in the developed world.

As previously mentioned, Koreans are extremely conscious of social standing.  This is clearly reflected even in the language they use for one other.  Korean has four formality tenses and an observer can tell where individuals stand by the level of politeness with which people address each other.  For instance, you may notice that junior KATUSAs address senior KATUSAs in the highest formality tense, the same they would use if they were to meet their president.  However, senior KATUSAs frequently address their juniors in the lowest formality tense, which is generally reserved for small children and stray dogs.

To be clear, none of these comments are condemnations of Korean society.  Indeed, Koreans are a beautiful people with deep wells of concern for their neighbors and the world.  However, as an outsider, it is important for you to understand what you are walking into. 

One of Korea's chief beauties is its profound love of children.  On numerous occasions I can remember being in town with my then three-year-old son, Jasper, and watching as every elder Korean woman virtually adopted him wherever we went.  Koreans' societal love for children is genuine and one shining example of their greatness of spirit.

The land itself is supremely beautiful.  Korean citizens take a great deal of pride in the beauty and orderliness of their homeland and only on rare occasions can I remember seeing litter even in Seoul, the capital and largest population center.  The country's urban areas are also a testament to the industry of the Korean people.  The largest cities sprawl for as far as the eye can see yet are clean, safe, and well-regulated.  Rural towns are genuine and unpretentious.  Picturesque villages high in the mountains carry on Korea's past with traditional living and a close connection to the earth.

If you do take an assignment in Korea and find yourself with free time, take the opportunity to travel.  The country is replete with natural and man-made magnificence that you will not find anywhere else in the world.  Indeed, after a three year tour, I still did not see half of all I wanted to.  Treat yourself while you are there to as many activities as you can.  Spend a long weekend in the seaside town of Sokcho, alongside the East Sea and in the commanding shadow of Mount Surak.  Take a tour of the DMZ and see firsthand why you are in Korea.  Lastly, hike an intensely beautiful corner of the peninsula called Soyosan, or the Long Walk Mountain, in the city of Dongducheon.  On that mountain you will find, in my opinion, the most peaceful views in the country.  Whatever you choose to see, though, do not let your tour pass without enjoying where you are.  Believe me, your day job in Korea will earn you more than a few afternoons of honest enjoyment.


If you do have an opportunity to serve in Korea, either as an individual or as part of a rotational unit, I encourage you to take it.  Service there is challenging, broadening, and rewarding.  Nowhere else will you have the opportunity to make the pilgrimage that so many Armor officers have made for over 60 years.  Nowhere else will you live in a culture so different yet so accessible to Americans.  And most importantly, nowhere else will you stare a despotic regime in the face from mere miles away, knowing that you are contributing to keeping Americans, South Koreans, and even North Koreans alive by your readiness.  It is an adventure not to be missed.

End Notes

1 Emperor Meiji,

2 Rowland, A., (October 28th, 2014).  USFK Bans Buying Drinks from 'Juicy Bar' Workers.  Stars and Stripes.  Retrieved from

3 Yangju Highway Incident,

About the Author(s)

Major Lance Brender is a United  States Army Armor officer. He is a native of
Cashmere, Wash. and has served in Iraq, Korea, and Saudi Arabia. He is
currently a master's candidate at the Command and General Staff Officer's