Were ROK troops scary in the Vietnam war?

Thursday, September 5th, 2019

Someone asked the rather leading question, Were ROK troops scary in the Vietnam war?

The Republic of Korea joined the Vietnam war in 1964 as part of the coalition forces. At its height, there were 48,000 ROK personnel. 320,000 ROK soldiers eventually saw combat in Vietnam with a total of around 16,000 casualties. Only around 4,000 ROK soldiers died in the entire war.

Discovered Vietcong documents warned NVA troops to never engage the South Koreans until full victory was certain. In fact, it was often the South Koreans ambushing the NVA and Vietcong, not vice versa.

ROK counter-insurgency operations were so good that even American commanders felt that South Korean Tactical Areas of Responsibility were the safest bases in Vietnam.

ROK soldiers learned pidgin Vietnamese while on tour due to their distrust of most Vietnamese translators, who they feared were Vietcong spies.

ROK Marines were noted for their more careful planning, greater fire discipline, more effective fire support, and better small unit tactics than their allies.

Village searches by the ROK were terrifying. While Americans would simple do a single sweep with a removal of all civilians for screening at a secure American base, ROK soldiers would conduct several detailed search sweeps and interrogated subjects on the spot. Any hidden weapons in the villages were quickly discovered by ROK troops.

“The Koreans were thorough in their planning and deliberate in their execution of a plan. They usually surrounded an area by stealth and quick movement… The enemy feared the Koreans both for their tactical innovations and for the soldiers’ tenacity… The Koreans might not suffer many casualties, might not get too many of the enemy on an operation, but when they brought in seventy-five or a hundred weapons, the Americans wondered where in the world they got them. They appeared to have a natural nose for picking up enemy weapons that were, as far as the enemy thought, securely cached away. Considered opinion was that it was good the Koreans were ‘friendlies.’”…

—Official U.S. Report on South Korean Participation in Vietnam, 1973

If ordered to take any captives back to base, “airborne interrogation” was frequent, and the number of prisoners when getting off the helicopter was somehow lower than when they got on.

Another answer:

In a word, yes. South Korea (Republic of Korea, a.k.a. ROK) was the US’ largest coalition partner in Vietnam. Most ROK officers and NCOs had ample combat experience from their own war 15 years previous.

My father who was in the Korean War noted that American vets often told him they liked working with ROK troops, observed that ROK sectors were unusually quiet and that ROK units were really good at finding VC and weapons caches.

How and why? My father said, and was rather dismayed to hear from his friends who went to Vietnam that they’d do things like line up a village that had sniped ROK troops, and simply ask “who is VC and where are the weapons?”

If no answer was forthcoming, they’d shoot the first person in line, and the next, and the next, until someone cracked. Yes, brutal, awful, but same tactics as the VC, and probably better than massacres, not that ROK units didn’t do a bit of that as well, same as NVA, VC, and US troops.

In quieter times, ROKs would relate better to the locals than US troops, eating rice together as fellow Asians who’d themselves grew up in war. Ratios of civilians to military killed were similarly high in both wars.

My US MP buddy, ’72, confirms this anecdotally. He said they were patrolling with ROK MPs when a Vietnamese guy started mouthing off to them. The ROK MP drew his .45 and blew the guy away on the spot, no questions asked.

I met a US Navy Corpsman who’d served in Vietnam in a bar few years back. When I told him about my dad, he shook my hand, recalled, “Yeah, the ROKs, I liked those guys, but they were crazy. Really good, absolutely crazy…”

For the record, I don’t think any of this is cute, tough or funny. When you consider the predicament of civilians, or young soldiers fighting a savage counter insurgency it’s all just the tragedy of war, terrible.

I’m glad the US and Vietnam are reconciling these days. Had we supported former OSS operative Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese independence in 1945 rather than handing them back to the French (???) we should have avoided the whole mess.

Contrary to domino theory paranoia the Vietnamese are no big fans of China,

There’s more.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    “Only around 4,000 ROK soldiers died in the entire war.”


    That’s about the same death rate as we suffered.

    The Turks had a heavy brigade there, too, as well as the Australians. How did they fair?

  2. Adar says:

    Scary in the sense of scary good. Able to accomplish tasks American troops could not do or were unwilling to do.

    And they probably had a good idea some of their translators were spies.

  3. Kirk says:

    The ROKA had a really good set of practical experiences dealing with Communist guerrillas in the Korean countryside. The US often overlooks that aspect of the Korean War and the aftermath; there were guerrilla actions still taking place in the 1970s in parts of South Korea, plus all the cross-DMZ actions. ROKA troops did exactly the same thing in Vietnam that they’d been doing for two generations in South Korea. It’s not much of a surprise that they were more effective than we were–They had no illusions, and no ideological issues at all with doing what needed doing.

    Personally, I think we should have told the South Koreans “Hey, ya know what…? We’ll cover your backs here in Korea, put a couple divisions of draftees in place… And, you guys go do your thing in South Vietnam, while we do the heavy lifting…”.

    Basically, we should have leveraged the South Koreans into being our Gurkhas in South Vietnam, gotten them to coach/teach/mentor the ARVN, and then used the ARVN the same way once they had their sh*t together.

    Woulda worked better than what we did, in my mind. The Vietnamese weren’t Communists because they wanted to be, they were Communists because the Soviets and Chinese sponsored and indoctrinated the cadres who were–The majority of the Vietnamese were exactly like any other Southeast Asian ethnicity, viciously interested in getting ahead. Natural capitalists, if you will–Look at what’s been going on there since the North won. Bastards are doing exactly what they would have done if we’d have actually lived up to our commitments and done what we promised.

    The South Koreans are an interesting bunch. I don’t know how the current generation is going to do, but the post-Korean War bunch were something else. You talk to the guys who spent the early ’50s crawling up and down the hills in pursuit of the Norks and local Communists, and you develop a deep desire not to continue the conversation because of the matter-of-fact way they describe atrocities committed against their opponents, and because you really don’t want to think about the necessities of dealing with these things.

    May not be too much longer before we have to do the same thing, here in the US. The likes of Antifa are only about a notch or two removed from the cadres who ran the guerrilla war for the Norks, and they’re going to have to be dealt with in a permanent manner. Once a creature runs feral like that, there’s no getting them back. All you can do is put them down–It’s like dealing with a farm dog that’s gotten a taste for blood. ROKA veterans of that pre-Vietnam era knew that.

  4. Phil B. says:

    “Had we supported former OSS operative Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese independence in 1945 rather than handing them back to the French (???)”

    I’ll leave this here …


  5. X-Ray says:

    I did once get drunk with a bunch of ROK Marines at the III MAF compound in Danang. We ended up ‘judoing’ concrete blocks for fun.

  6. McChuck says:

    “Contrary to domino theory paranoia the Vietnamese are no big fans of China”

    That wasn’t the point. The Vietnamese were Soviet clients, and conquered or converted both Cambodia and Laos. The Vietnamese are still in Laos, by the way. And they fought a bitter war with Thailand. The only reason the Vietnamese didn’t win that war is that we had already bled them before it started, and we’d given massive support to the Thais.

Leave a Reply