by Captain Robert E. Goodson, Jr.

Anyone who has ever worked in a joint command knows the difficulties and language barriers that can come from working in a multi-Service organization. From different operational terms to evaluation reports, a joint environment can present many obstacles that we must overcome if the organization is to be successful. In the same sense, this environment provides a great learning opportunity and professional experience. From participating in the other Services’ traditions to seeing things done in a different and perhaps even better way, a joint duty assignment can be a great and rewarding experience.

Now, take that experience and factor in not just a difference in “lingo” but a different language. Add the fact that you are not only dealing with another language but also another culture. Finally, factor in the security issues presented by a combined intelligence effort and you can begin to imagine the unique challenges of working in a combined environment, specifically the Combined Forces Command (CFC) in the Republic of Korea (ROK). Just as with a joint assignment, a combined assignment can be a positive professional and personal experience.


United States Forces, Korea (USFK) is a sub-unified command within the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), and represents the majority of the U. S. military presence in the ROK. In addition to U.S. personnel assigned solely to the CFC, many members of USFK fill both combined and joint duty positions and represent the U.S. military within the CFC. CFC is composed of elements of all the military Services of the ROK and the United States. South Korean and U.S. military personnel work together in the CFC and USFK to deter any threat from North Korea.

Given the mission of the CFC, it is obvious that intelligence plays a vital factor in the accomplishment of this mission. The task of providing intelligence to the CFC forces falls upon the intelligence staff element or the Assistant Chief of Staff, C2 (Intelligence Directorate). The head of the C2 is currently a ROK Air Force major general. The USFK Assistant Chief of Staff, J2—the senior U.S. intelligence officer on the Korean peninsula (presently an Army brigadier general)—serves as his deputy. Within the C2, U.S. and ROK intelligence personnel (both military and civilian) work cooperatively to provide the CFC with accurate and predictive intelligence in support of the armistice1 and, if necessary, wartime mission.

ROK intelligence personnel provide a much-needed continuity for U.S. intelligence soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Due to the high personnel tempo in Korea2, there is a nearly constant rotation of U.S. soldiers and civilians in and out of the theater. As they  leave, so does their knowledge of the North Korean threat. Additionally, North Korea is arguably the toughest intelligence target in the world. It is an extremely closed society, and their emphasis on operational security (OPSEC) makes analyzing their order of battle (OB) and threat challenging for any intelligence professional, especially one who spends only one or two years in Korea. Obviously, the South Koreans’ experience and knowledge in dealing with the North Korean threat are invaluable for U.S. personnel. U.S. civilian intelligence analysts also provide a crucial continuity in the theater. It is vital that military personnel take advantage of these resources.

Combined for a Reason

ROK expertise is crucial when conducting intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB). U.S. theater-level analysts cannot feasibly conduct a ground reconnaissance of the entire theater. ROK personnel can provide essential information on the effects of the terrain on friendly and enemy operations. Because of the type of terrain on the Korean peninsula, mechanized mobility corridors and avenues of approach equate to major lines of communication (LOCs); most South Koreans have traveled these LOCs and can discuss trafficability and weather effects. In addition, South Korea’s highways are improved or built faster than new maps are printed: ROK personnel can provide these updates to your map reconnaissance.

Due to North Korea’s large special purpose forces3, rear area IPB is also critical. Our South Korean counterparts can provide valuable information on likely threat targets. In addition, the South Korean field armies and corps have intelligence personnel conducting detailed analysis of their area of operations (AO) and concentrating on the specific threat to that AO. There are ROK intelligence analysts that study the same North Korean units day in and day out, and have done so for years. A ROK analyst would likely notice immediately ambiguous indicators that might not stand out to an U.S. analyst who has not been able to follow the historical development and traditional training patterns of a particular unit. In addition, a ROK analyst’s attention to detail results in very detailed North Korean OB.

Combined Challenges

At times, U.S. personnel fail to make our South Korean counterparts an integral part of our intelligence effort. I believe that there are several reasons for this: the language barrier, an ignorance of Korean culture, and security practices.

The language barrier can be frustrating and can lead one to the easy way out: do not include the ROK personnel. Our Korean allies can misconstrue this language barrier as not understanding a concept. We, at times, tend to become very impatient and show our frustration by raising our voices. To our Korean counterparts, this behavior can be quite offensive and can inadvertently create another obstacle to communication. Unfortunately, this does a huge disservice to the combat commander who needs the best intelligence available. The best intelligence is, in almost every case, combined intelligence.

Ironically, we worsen the language issue by using phrases and terms that a native English speaker, let alone a Korean, cannot understand, and using acronyms that we ourselves do not know or which we have forgotten. In preparing dual-language briefings, I have often learned as much as the Koreans did, because I researched U.S. terms in order to explain them in understandable terms to my counterpart. The incidental benefit to this is that U.S. intelligence personnel must speak or write in easily translatable and, therefore, easily understood terms. If you can explain it to Korean personnel, you can also explain it to an operator or combat soldier, who may be just as unfamiliar with “MI speak.”

We prepare numerous dual language briefings in the C2 for presentation side-by-side to a combined audience. Something as small as a different size of a bullet on a graphic or something more substantive (e.g., the North’s quantity of a particular system), can cause much consternation and embarrassment for our South Korean counterparts and us. Again, we often add to this problem by making complex, multicolored animated presentations that are not easily translatable or understandable to either audience. It is critical that you coordinate every change to a document or briefing with your counterpart to ensure it is still understandable.

A misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about Korean culture and traditions can also present an obstacle for combined intelligence. To someone ignorant of Korean culture, a Korean may seem unprofessional or uninterested at times. Social interchange is very important to Koreans. There are times when you may be very busy and a South Korean counterpart wants to “shoot the breeze” for a few minutes; although it may seem like what you are doing just cannot wait, take a few minutes and socialize. Koreans are generally very circumspect in public, so take the opportunity when it arises to get to know them. Socializing is quite acceptable in the Korean workplace; the South Koreans, in addition to our regular five-day workweek, also work Saturday mornings. Most South Koreans are amazed at the number of Federal and training holidays that U.S. personnel have.  

Rapport and mutual respect will pay big dividends in your professional relationships. Spend any amount of time with a Korean and you should immediately recognize that they are consummate professionals, very detail-oriented, and dedicated to the defense of their nation. Koreans take very per- sonally day-to-day failures or shortcomings which are fairly acceptable and commonplace to us. Knowledge of this cultural trait is extremely important in U.S.-ROK relations.

It helps to understand that Confucianism provides the basis of Korean culture and traditions. This means that there is an automatic hierarchical relationship estab- lished between two people. This is a concept embedded very deeply in all aspects of Korean society and is most apparent in their language, which has varying levels of polite words and uses of subordi- nate-to-senior expressions. This is easy for us to translate into a military community; however, in Korean society, it also includes age, occupation, gender, marital status, and even which college one had attended.

Many Koreans will ask questions that to U.S. soldiers and civilians may seem very personal. Far from being rude, it is a method of establishing the hierarchical relationship. When U.S. personnel joke with superiors  it is generally acceptable, within reason. However, a Korean superior can construe the jokes of a U.S. subordinate as very rude behavior.

Finally, some U.S. intelligence personnel become frustrated when their ROK counterparts cannot share all of their information due to security constraints. The ROK military is very security conscious in dealing with ROK-produced classified information and employs very stringent measures in handling classified or sensitive documents. There is a well-documented North Korean human intelligence (HUMINT) effort; thus, OPSEC is very important and pragmatic for the South Korean military. Remember that we also do not share everything with our allies.


In addition to the professional development gained from serving on a combined staff, there are other rewards, both personal and professional, that one can only experience by serving in another country. As I mentioned earlier, Korean society is somewhat closed compared to Western cultures. However, earn the respect of Koreans or show a genuine interest in their lives, and they will treat you very graciously. I believe there is much we can achieve, as soldiers and foreign visitors, from befriending Koreans.

Another enjoyable aspect of being on a combined staff, particularly South Korean, is their enjoy- ment of things that have become trivial to the U.S. military. Re- ceiving praise or recognition is a big deal for Koreans. Being in the U.S. Army, where awards have become  devalued and commonplace (aside from awards for valor or bravery), it is refreshing to see the importance placed on an award and its presentation in the South Korean military. Even if it is a certificate of achievement, you can be sure that the presenter will have some refreshments available after the presentation. The superior will take some time to socialize with and express genuine appreciation for the awardee.


Single-Service operations are now rare for the U.S. military, and joint assignments have become a critical part of a military member’s professional development. One need only watch the news to understand that it is also less likely that the United States will participate in any unilateral operations. Combined experience is a very crucial and rewarding part of a military career.

 Taking the time to learn about another nation’s culture and ways of doing business will pay huge dividends. It will also make the combined duty assignment or combined exercise more productive. Especially for intelligence professionals, I believe it will provide you with different and, perhaps, better ways of doing our business.

The author would like to thank Captain Anne Weinberg, U.S. Marine Corps, for her assistance in addressing Korean culture. Captain Weinberg is an East Asian Foreign Area Officer, and has studied in the Republic of Korea.


1. Following the Korean War, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea signed an armistice in July 1953; to date they have not signed a peace treaty.

2. Military personnel stationed in South Korea generally serve a two-year accom- panied tour or a one-year unaccompanied tour.

3. North Korea has the largest special operations force in the world.

Captain Goodson is currently serving as a Strategic Intelligence Officer in the Estimates Branch, Plans and Operations Division, Combined Forces Command C2/USFK J2. His previous assignments include Assistant S2 and S2 of 5th Squadron, 17th Cavalry, Regiment, 2d Infantry Division; Collection and Jamming Platoon Leader, A Company, 101st Military Intelligence Battalion, 1st Infantry Division; and S2, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Bn, 1st Infantry Division. CPT Goodson graduated from Virginia Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Arts degree in German and Political Science. Readers can contact the author via E-mail at [email protected] and telephonically at DSN (315)723-6423.