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Korean Military: Rank

August 30, 2009

I spent a year working for the Republic of Korea Air Force, and now that I’ve got some distance from that job (left a year ago this week), I’m going to start a series of posts on what I observed.

The Korean military has some similarities and differences in terms of rank structure, and how personnel of various ranks relate to one another.  Both the officer structure and enlisted structure looks (on the surface) to be very similar to the American structure. However, the differences are significant.

The Korean military actually has another “class” of personnel altogether: those doing their two-year obligatory service as an enlisted person. They have a four-grade rank structure all their own. I mention “as an enlisted person” because one can apply to do their service as an officer. This is a competitive application, requiring a bachelor’s degree. Those who are accepted must do three years service instead of two. However, they come in as officers, meaning they get much more substantial pay, have much better quarters, and it looks much better on a resume. While officers often get easier duty, this isn’t always the case. I regularly saw 1st and 2nd Lieutenants outside sweeping up when the base commander was scheduled to visit.

The social differences between the ranks are interesting. I had students of all ranks, from Major General to Private, which afforded me the chance to talk to lots of different kinds of people. A 1st Lieutenant once summarized how various ranks feel about each other thusly: “The temporary duty enlisted think they are better than the career enlisted, because they’ve got plans to finish university and then get a good job. The career enlisted think they are better than both the temporary enlisted and officers because they’re snot-nosed kids. The temporary officers think they are better than all the enlisted, because they’re young officers who think they’re going to get out and set the world on fire., and the career officers think they are better than everyone.” Take this with a grain of salt…its a gross generalization, but it shows what some people think, and knowing how people generalize tells you something too.

If you think Korean society is hierarchical, that goes double for the military. One salutes someone of a higher rank. In the US and most Western militaries, enlisted salute officers, and officers salute superior officers, but enlisted do not salute each other. Not true in South Korea, where you see Privates saluting Corporals, and even other Privates who are senior. When saluting, a motto is stated. In the ROK Navy, Air Force, and Marines, it is 필승! which means “Sure Victory!” The Army says something else. This is also stated as a “verbal salute” when answering the telephone, and identifying the caller as of higher rank. The conversation would go something like this: “Foreign Language Institute, Instructor Lee.” “This is Manager Kim.” “Yes. Sure Victory!”

In the Korean military, people are usually referred to by job title, not by rank. A section chief who is a Captain would be called “Section Chief Kim” (김 과장님), not “Captain Kim.” This means knowing his/her unit is very important. I knew a Captain who was a Manager (실장) of a small unit , and a Lt. Colonel who had the same title at a much larger unit.

Another difference is that in the US military, each service has their own names for each paygrade. An Air Force Senior Airman is equivalent to a Navy Petty Officer Third Class, a Marine Corps Corporal, and an Army Specialist. In Korea, the same title is used in all services.

This concludes my first post on the Korean military. Stay tuned for more.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2009 8:19 pm

    nothing to add other than I really appreciate the English language, foreign-perspective of this topic. The only other people I’ve talked to were English-speaking Koreans.

    Anyways, great post, and looking forward to more (reading p.2 two now)

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