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Posted on Dec 31, 2007 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

ROK Civil Military Operations In Support of Counterinsurgencies

By Armchair General

The ROK military’s involvement in Vietnam grew to two infantry divisions and a marine regiment. Over 313,000 Koreans would fight in Vietnam before that conflict ended. A major part of that involvement included COIN supported by civic-action programs.
ROK forces in Vietnam had slightly different missions from their American counterparts. One major mission was to keep the roads in their area of operations and a 350 kilometer long stretch of Highway 1 open and protect civilians in their area of operations. As a result, the ROK units were more or less tied to the local population and ROK Soldiers had to be more careful of the manner in which they handled themselves tactically in searching out the enemy. (24) They wanted to root out the Viet Cong, not spur their recruitment.

The first major ROK combat unit to fight in Vietnam was the Capital, or “Tiger” Division. The Capital Division initially was given the mission of close-in patrolling and spent its first days in South Vietnam learning the surrounding terrain and the ways of the Vietnamese. ROK Soldiers had to overcome the language barrier between themselves and the Vietnamese people. Additionally, ROK Soldiers were much more authoritative than their Vietnamese counterparts and this showed in their dealings with the Vietnamese public. The ROK leadership overcame these differences by bringing Koreans and Vietnamese together. ROK Soldiers worshipped at local Buddhist temples and repaired facilities which had been either destroyed by enemy operations or suffered from neglect. (25) Although few ROK Soldiers spoke the local language, they had much in common with the Vietnamese public because of the common village origin of the ROK soldier and the Vietnamese peasant, the common rice economy of the two countries, and their similarities in religion and rural culture. (26)


The ROK Army closely linked its pacification and combat operations. After ROK Army units secured an area, their civic action teams would begin their training programs and provide medical assistance in an attempt to gain the allegiance of the people. ROK forces had their greatest success with small unit civic action projects and security operations within their tactical area of responsibility. (27)

A ROK civic action team provides medical assistance to Vietnamese villagers. The ROK conducted similar civic action programs at home in the Chiri and Taebaek Mountains of Korea in the late 1960s to early 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Vietnam Veterans of Korea at

Shaun Darragh served as an advisor to Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group forces (CIDG) in 1968 and also helped equip Vietnamese Regional Forces and Protective Forces (RF/PF). He observed ROK units conducting civil military operations and counterinsurgency operations first hand:

. . . since the Koreans were out among the population, in AORs within which they had had a relatively stable presence, and not in an immediate advisory role, they took their CA mission very seriously. But, unlike the Highland SF camps, and some of A-502s CA projects, the Korean CA projects were strictly in support of a local civilian population. They had no “indigenous CIDG or RF/PF” dependents to care for. This does not mean that some of their projects did not have ancillary military value. It just means that their projects were more in tune with winning the population’s support. . . . In short, the Koreans did everything we did. They improved roads, built culverts; conducted medical civic action, built schools where there were none, and fixed up others. They connected a few hamlets to the district electrical grid (oil and kerosene lamps were still common in rural areas), and also ran the inevitable Tae Kwon Do courses at various schools. . .Understand, that if you cannot provide security to the population, civic action can do nothing. You cannot win a heart or mind if you are a temporary presence. In Khanh Hoa and Phu Yen provinces, the Koreans had been on the ground for over a year, and unlike elite American divisions, were not jumping around the country putting out fires. Like A-502, they were implanted. They were in the very same terrain they would occupy until Korean troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. That, and their Korean War experience, gave them a decided edge. They did everything by the book, and in October 1968 were able to temporarily place a significant task force on the mountains above Nha Trang, to root out elements of the 18B NVA and 95 (VC) Regiment that had been operating there since the French period. (28)

ROK Soldier supervises Tae-Kwon Do practice for Vietnamese school children. (Department of Defense photo)

ROK Soldiers and Marines in Vietnam favored small unit operations and numerous company sized outposts not unlike our surge operations in Baghdad today. When they did mass for attacks on known VC or NVA strongholds, they did so only after detailed rehearsals and meticulous preparations. ROK units conducting battalion or larger operations typically enjoyed casualty ratios of more than twenty enemy combatants per ROK casualty and invariably seized more weapons than American units conducting similar operations. (29)

Equally important to ROK success in Vietnam was the non-kinetic side of its operations. Lieutenant General Chae, Commander of Korean Forces Vietnam, specified in his code of conduct “To the Vietnamese people, behave with kindness and warmness.” His leadership principles for civic action stated that “Every officer and man should be an expert in psy-war; every civic assistance program should be carried out effectively and the spirit of the Korean people should be planted in Vietnam.” (30)

A ROK Soldier helps deliver humanitarian assistance to needy Vietnamese. (Photo courtesy of Vietnam Veterans of Korea at

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