After being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the South Korean army in 1981, I had a short leadership position as the leader of a rifle platoon. I then spent three years as an aide-de-camp to the chairman of the Republic of Korea, which is highly unusual for a lieutenant.
South Korea in the early 1980s was different than it is now. The country enforced a curfew from midnight to 4 a.m. each day. Anyone moving around during this time would end up in jail under suspicion of sabotage or criminal intent. North Korean armed infiltrators were often caught and killed by South Korean troops, and I suspect a lot more were successful in whatever mission they intended.
South Korean society was harsh by today’s standards. No male was allowed to have long hair, and young women who had too short a skirt would be “escorted” to the police station for a lesson in how to dress properly. No one second-guessed a teacher, a policeman or a senior military officer.
In the mid-1980s, the average wage of a South Korean was about $4,500 a year, compared to over $35,000 today. In Korean society, physical punishment was common and accepted at home, schools and in the military, and even sometimes in the workplace.
In the military, pushups, flogging and all sorts of punishment that bordered on torture were the norm. This, coupled with a shortage of food and harsh living quarters, which were cold in the winter and hot in the summer, made life miserable for soldiers.
As a young officer, these realities were hard to accept. My senior officers were good people but had accepted the circumstances that surrounded them, and most did not need to bother themselves with trying to be a “good leader” because in those times, just having the rank garnered obedience and even loyalty from subordinates. As for me, I gave my loyalty to my nation and people, and thought that a person must earn respect.
No one I knew of at that time could offer me a good example and advice on being a good leader, which is what I was seeking in 1985 as I was taking command of a rifle company. Then one day, in my role as aide-de-camp, I spoke with Gen. William Livsey, who was commander of U.S. Forces Korea. I asked him, “How can I be a good company commander?” He replied, “Capt. Chun, take care of your men, and they will take care of you.’’
This simple but true tenet of leadership has guided me ever since and has never failed me. It took me many hours and days to realize that a good leader takes care of the basics: feeding, clothing/equipping and housing their soldiers and, most importantly, training them to make sure they can do the job and have a fair chance to survive.
The other lesson of this story is how a U.S. soldier, whether a general, a field or company grade officer, an NCO or even an enlisted soldier, can have an effect on those seeking something better than the reality they are in. As South Korean society progresses, the military faces new challenges, yet the bond with the American soldier remains a source of strength. The shared values and mutual respect between South Korean and U.S. military personnel continue to shape a culture of collaboration and excellence.
The opportunities for learning extend beyond tactical skills, emphasizing a deeper understanding of shared values and a commitment to fostering a culture of respect.
In a world where international cooperation is paramount, the enduring connection between South Korean and American soldiers serves as a beacon of unity. Pride in service transcends national borders, creating a universal standard of honor and shared purpose among those who wear the uniform. The journey from the harsh realities of the past to the present reflects not only personal growth but also a collective transformation toward a more compassionate and mutually supportive military community.
In the contemporary landscape, the enduring lessons of leadership and camaraderie resonate in the South Korean military. The evolution from the challenging circumstances of the 1980s to the present reflects not only a shift in societal norms but also a testament to the adaptability of military institutions. Physical punishment and harsh conditions have given way to a more humane and supportive environment.
Today, in South Korean society, physical punishment no longer exists as a practical form of discipline. In the military, food, living quarters and clothing are pretty good, but a new set of challenges faces a conscript military like South Korea’s. Many Korean soldiers find hope and solace in their brothers in arms: the American soldier.
Lt. Gen. In-Bum Chun, Republic of Korea Army retired, was an infantry officer in the Republic of Korea, retiring in 2016 after 38 years. His leadership positions included chief, Election Support Branch, Multi-National Force-Iraq; deputy assistant chief of staff for operations, Republic of Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command; commander, Republic of Korea Army Special Warfare Command; and deputy commander, First Republic of Korea Army. He is an Association of the U.S. Army senior fellow.