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Ban Seok Choi served as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force in South Sudan with the South Korean military. He finished his military service—which is mandatory for South Korean men—earlier this month.
During my military service, I had ample opportunity to experience how South Korea contributes to global security by being dispatched as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force in South Sudan. The First Contingent of the Republic of Korea’s Horizontal Mechanical Engineering Company (ROK HMEC) was dispatched in March 2013 and returned to Korea in October the same year. It paved an amicable relationship between the two nations by launching civil-military cooperation. The unit has also provided medical treatment and has supported the country’s reconstruction by constructing flood-control conduits and reconstructing the local road system.
I was deployed with the Second Contingent. As an airborne paratrooper of the ROK Army Special Operations Command, I was dispatched as the force protection unit. Our main objective in the field was to secure our base and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Bor, as well as to protect the ROK HMEC, which was tasked with reconstruction tasks by the UN.
The December 15, 2013 coup attempt organized by South Sudanese former vice president Riek Machar highlighted ROK HMEC’s ability to adapt to different situations. Handling crucial matters such as treating critically ill patients, supplying internally displaced persons (IDPs) with water and food, and handling the deceased in a quick, calm way demonstrates that the ROK military can contribute to peacekeeping activities in volatile situations. Moreover, provision of safe shelters for the United Nations Police, Military Liaison Officers, and other key members of the United Nations and the UNMISS within our compound is further proof of the safety within the boundaries of the Korean compound.
Despite successes in compound fortification and assistance to refugees and IDPs, some aspects of the ROK military activity in South Sudan should be discussed further. When foreigners were asked to evacuate the country, it was the ROK HMEC that facilitated most of the foreigner evacuation operation in the Bor area. However, I witnessed an incident regarding the issue of racial discrimination on the part of ROK soldiers who were evacuating the foreigners. While their manner of speaking English and style of dress differed from the other people, from the point of view of other South Korean soldiers the African Americans’ skin color caused them to blend with the other refugees and came to our compound, seeking protection. The South Korean forces were not friendly to them because their skin tone was similar with the domestic refugees. However, when they told us that they are Americans, we started to treat them differently from the Sudanese. We started by calling the U.S. embassy in Juba and even arranged a helicopter flight for them to evacuate. Witnessing all this as an interpreter and a primary source, I felt a little embarrassed that the ROK military is still closed-minded when it comes to race. Such a misunderstanding shows that the ROK military, if it continues to serve abroad in multiethnic settings, should be more respectful to other ethnic groups regardless of their national competitiveness.
The lack of preparedness is another area of concern about the ROK military. During the coup, the ROK HMEC lacked adequate ammunition and bulletproof vests for all personnel. Only the Force Protection Unit and some officers could outfit themselves with full gear. The Ministry of National Defense claimed that because the ROK HMEC’s primary task was to provide engineering support for reconstruction projects, rather than combat, full gear for all personnel was unnecessary. The Ministry of National Defense clearly did not expect that the operation area to which we would be deployed would face a coup. The ROK military still lacks complete ability to assess its operation area thoroughly. Moreover, because the Korean peninsula is still at war despite a long-standing armistice, ROK military’s failure to supply basic gears and dispatching an inadequately prepared contingent to a very unstable part of Africa gave me a sense of anxiety and mistrust while I was serving there. It also raises questions about South Korea’s crisis management ability of similar possible incidents on the Korean Peninsula.
The power generators are a final concern that demonstrates the inability of the ROK military to properly outfit its forces abroad. On one occasion, all three of the power generators at our compound had exploded and we were left with no power. Those power generators were made to be used indoors with a maximum sustainable temperature of 43 degrees Celsius. We—the soldiers and officers—had no trouble with the power generators during the First Contingent because it had been deployed during the rainy season. However, when the Second Contingent was deployed during the dry season, the generators could barely withstand the heat. Following the explosions of the power generators, the ROK soldiers became the victims of ROK military’s ill-preparedness, as we lost access to air conditioning and water pumps. Although we were able to purchase a new outdoor-use power generator, such poor supplies indicate the ROK military is unable to properly outfit its forces abroad.
South Korea has made the first strides to contribute to world stability. It is certainly impressive that the ROK is giving back the world despite facing war on its own northern border. However, for the South Korean contribution to global peacekeeping efforts to be effective, responsible, and safe, the ROK military must address shortcomings in supplies and assessment.