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Korean Military: Transfers and Command

September 16, 2009

This is the second post in my series on my observations while working for the Republic of Korea Air Force.

The Korean military has a vastly different system when it comes to assignment of personnel. Most enlisted conscriptees doing their military service go to recruit training and then are assigned to a base, to which they usually are attached for their entire term of duty. Those who are accepted into the officer program (called “short-term officers” may be transferred once or twice during the three years they must serve. Long-term (career) officers are usually transferred yearly, although in some cases may spend two years in a single place.

This means a Colonel retiring after 30 years service has between 25 and 30 different units on his service record. I was told it “looks good” to have served in many different units. In practice, I find it highly inefficient. It often takes the new commanding officer four to six months to learn the job, get to know the strengths and weaknesses of key personnel and the unit as a whole, and then after six to eight more months, he or she is gone. Initiatives that may require more than a year’s oversight are difficult to maintain. I say “maintain” because they do not seem difficult to begin. It is not uncommon for new commanding officers to immediately reverse plans or policies that a previous CO may have enacted with an eye to the future.

Another interesting thing is how absolute orders seem to me. I will tell a story to illustrate what I mean. My unit arranged for me to privately teach several lieutenant Colonels, a full colonel, and a brigadier general (base chief of staff). I became known as a “person of influence,” because of this, although this was not really the case. One day a coworker with whom I was friendly came to me, to tell me that he had orders to another unit. This was a unit he had previously been attached to, and he did not want to go. He asked if I could pull some strings and get his orders changed. I was taken aback, not by his asking for help, but because he actually thought that I somehow might be able to.

I asked him what he thought I could do. “Talk to your colonel friend or your general friend,” he suggested. This didn’t make sense to me. In the U.S. Navy, when orders are issued, they come from BUPERS (Bureau of Personnel), and its equivalent in the other services. These orders are generally arrived at through complex manpower planning. Any given colonel could not pick up a phone and stop a captain from being transferred. Said colonel could make a request: they could explain to personnel why the captain in question should remain. Even so, it is a given that no person is irreplaceable in the military. Such requests are rarely made, and even more rarely honored. I explained how it worked in the USA, and he said “Oh, not in Korea. Any higher ranked person can get an order changed or belayed. Our commanding officer has already tried to help me, but he was recently promoted to Lt. Col., and the Lt. Col. who signed the order is senior. I need a colonel or higher to help me. One of your friends could do it with a single phone call. He just needs to call up the Lt. Col. who signed my order and order him to assign someone else.”

I was pretty surprised. I’ve asked a half dozen other officers who all tell me that his facts are correct. If this is the case, how does the South Korean military do any sort of cohesive personnel planning?

End to the story: Making this kind of phone call and stopping a transfer requires use of a kind of “social capital” that high-ranking officers are loathe to give up without good cause. If you go around meddling in other people’s command decisions on a regular basis, you develop a bad reputation which may hurt your chances for promotion. He was transferred the following week.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 17, 2009 9:20 am

    [Bear in mind that I have zero experience in the military, whether American or Korean]

    I don’t find this sort of behavior surprising – seniors above juniors has been ingrained in the Korean mindset for centuries (millenia?). It’s all organized like the tiebreaking system in some sports leagues – win-loss record, then how they fared against each other or point count. Eventually one comes out the winner, even if only by decimal points worth of difference.

    Yes, the idea that using / abusing your power will have a reaction from those higher than you. Nice article, Tony.

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