In 2002, three women broke new ground in Korea’s military history when they were commissioned as fighter pilots. Known as the “Women Pilot Trio” by their fighter wing, First Lieutenants Park Ji-yeon, Park Ji-won, and Pyun Bo-ra, earned admission to the Korea Air Force Academy by overcoming stiff competition in which only one out of 22 applicants were selected. They recorded outstanding scores in all of the rigorous training sessions, including the Night, All-weather, and Formation Flights, and piloting of the T-38 or T-59, advanced supersonic training jets. They also demonstrated exemplary leadership skills, along with possessing the physical capabilities required of pilots.
Women Fighter Pilots
On November 22, 2007, when Lieutenant Ha Jeong-mi stepped onto the tarmac of the 20th Fighter Wing, in Seosan, Chungcheongnam-do Province, she made history as the first woman to pilot a KF-16 jet fighter. Ha was commissioned an Air Force second lieutenant in 2002, and she had piloted an A-37 through late 2006, when she applied for a slot to pilot a jet fighter. For a year thereafter, she was trained to pilot a KF-16.
However, the training regimen was not without its difficulties. A KF-16 is capable of a speed of Mach 2, which was about 1.5 times faster than the A-37 that she had previously flown. When she accelerated rapidly or made a sharp turn, her body had to endure a tremendous force of 9 Gs, equivalent to nine times the normal effect of gravity. Ha noted: “After flying abrupt maneuvers, I would have these awful bruises on my thighs and arms because the pressure would rupture my capillaries.”
Ha dreamed about becoming a fighter pilot while she was a senior in high school. When Air Force personnel came to her school to recruit students for the Korea Air Force Academy, she learned about the experiences of a pilot. Ever since then, she harbored a desire to “fly in the sky” rather than having a routine life in college. In 2001, as a senior cadet at the Air Force Academy, she visited the 20th Fighter Wing, where she was so impressed with the sleek appearance of a KF-16 on the runway that she decided to become a jet fighter pilot. “I am determined to be the best fighter pilot in the Air Force. There is no such thing as off-limits to me,” Ha enthusiastically declares.
Among the three military services, the Air Force was the first to open the doors of its academy to women. The Air Force Academy admitted its first women students in 1997, and graduated the first women pilots in 2002. Of the 1,900 or so pilots in the Air Force, as of 2007, there are 24 women pilots who are assigned to the operation of helicopters, transport planes, and jet fighters.
Special Forces Paratrooper
Warrant Officer Kang Myung-suk, who has been serving in the Korean Army for more than 20 years, is assigned to the Special Warfare Command (SWC), an elite force of the Korean military. Moreover, the 707 battalion of which she is a member includes the most highly regarded SWC troops. With 4,002 parachute jumps to her credit, Kang ranks No. 1 among women soldiers. During her intensive training period, she once parachuted ten times a day. Thanks to her rigorous training, she managed to capture a second place award at the Military World Games, held in Croatia in 1998, which included participants from 43 countries.
The particular jump that she remembers best was during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, when she touched down on the field of the Jamsil Olympic Stadium. “From high in the sky, the Olympic Stadium looked like a gigantic heart and it seemed to be beating to the rhythm of my own heart,” Kang recalls. Previously, Kang was of a slight build and rather introverted. However, with the confidence gained from her successful parachute jumps, she has developed into an outgoing person who welcomes challenges. Because of her compact physique and agility, she is known as “Atom,” after the Astro Boy character of the Japanese animation film.
Ordnance Disposal Team
Last year, a woman soldier participated in mine-clearing operations conducted in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi-do Province, and Cheorwon and Goseong, Gangwon-do Province, which were undertaken to remove mines in areas along the DMZ line in order to prevent possible injury to civilian residents. Kim Ji-yeong, a staff sergeant of the 2nd Army Logistics Support Command, is the first woman soldier to be assigned to the ordnance disposal unit.
She joined the Army in 2005, and applied for assignment to the ordnance disposal team in June 2007. Previously, when she was promoted to staff sergeant, Kim and four other women soldiers were assigned to the handling of explosive ordnance, which heretofore had been assigned to only male troops. Kim was attracted by the challenge of this risky duty. “I wanted to find my own specialty, something most people would not dare to do,” Kim said.
Kim is responsible for the safe disposal of undischarged rounds in the fields after live-fire exercises, as well as any bombs and landmines remaining from the Korean War. Ordnance disposal is one of the military’s most hazardous assignments, in which a momentary lapse can mean serious injury. “Whenever I prepare for an assignment, I have to repeat ‘Calm down’ to myself three times,” she says. During the period July 2007 to March 2008, she participated in more than 60 disposal operations.
Marine Company Commander
Nicknamed “Ghost Busters,” the ROK Marine Corps is legendary for the physical demands of its training regimen. In 2006, some 54 years after its establishment, the Marine Corps assigned its first woman to a command position of a combat unit. Captain Kim Yun-jeon thus became the corps’ first woman company commander, in charge of the headquarters company of the 2nd Regiment of the 1st Division.
Previously, Kim had been in the spotlight when she was appointed the first Marine Corps woman officer in 2001. Of particular note, she has managed to successfully juggle three roles: Marine company commander, military officer’s wife, and mother of a 17-month-old son. Initially, members of her company seemed to be taken aback by this new experience, but it was not long before Kim earned their respect with her no-nonsense approach and authoritative presence.
As a cadet, she completed all the training exercises under the scorching sun and in rough seas, alongside her male counterparts. Moreover, in training sessions, such as shooting drills, amphibious landings, helicopter landings, and bio-weapons practices, she would regularly outperform her male cadets. The Marine Corps granted no exceptions to Kim, nor did she accept any preferential treatment. The only privilege she enjoyed was exclusive use of the lady’s room and a separate bedroom. To Kim, there is a simple explanation for her choice of the Marine Corps over the Army, Navy, or Air Force: “Marines are the greatest soldiers.”
Women in Korea’s Military
The first women troops of the regular army included 32 officers who were admitted to military schools in 1948. Single women between the ages of 18 and 25, with a middle school diploma (equivalent to today’s high school), were eligible to enlist in the military after passing a written test and comprehensive physical examination. The most prominent women officers of this period included Kim Hyeon-suk, who was commissioned a first lieutenant and later became the first woman chief branch officer, and Kim Jeong-rye, a platoon commander, who later served as a legislator and the Minister of Health and Social Affairs. Following the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the Women’s Volunteer Training Center, the first formal unit of women soldiers, was established in September.
In 1969, the first women soldiers were dispatched overseas, along with the first deployment of women airborne troops. Since 1988, married women have been allowed to continue their military service after childbirth. In the late 1990s, the service academies, which thus far had only accepted male candidates, started to open their doors. The first women candidates were admitted into the Air Force Academy in 1997, the Military Academy in 1998, and the Naval Academy in 1999.
After the Air Force commissioned the first women pilots in 2002, the Military Academy appointed its first women officers that same year and assigned them to rifle corps units, on the frontline, as platoon commanders. In 2003, the first women sailors were assigned to battleship duty, which brought an end to this longstanding “men-only” domain. At the Air Force Academy, the woman cadet Hwang Eun-jeong gained legendary status by entering and graduating as the No. 1 of her class.
Increase of Women Officers
In November 2002, the School for Women Soldiers (successor of the Women’s Volunteer Training Center) concluded its 52 years of operation when the Women Soldiers’ Advocacy Agency was established, under the supervision of the Minister of National Defense. In recognition of the increasing number of women in the military and the growing importance of their roles, the Ministry of National Defense sought to maintain a more comprehensive support organization in order to better address related issues. During just over half a century, the School for Women Soldiers turned out more than 1,500 officers and 6,300 noncommissioned officers.
The competition among women seeking to enter officer training academies has intensified noticeably in recent years. For example, women applicants of the Naval Academy can gain admission only by surviving a competition ratio of 40 to 1. As for the Military and Air Force academies, women candidates face stiffer competition than their male counterparts. Meanwhile, a November 2008 report indicated that women accounted for a one-third share of the noncommissioned officers who had graduated from the Army NCO Academy that year.
As of August 2008, the number of women serving in Korea’s armed forces stood at 4,910, including 2,618 officers and 2,292 noncommissioned officers (no women served at the private rank). By branch, the Army included 2,067 women officers and 1,563 NCOs, the Navy 252 officers and 224 NCOs, and the Air Force 299 officers and 505 NCOs.
However, the overall rate of women in Korea’s military (2.7 percent) remains somewhat lower than that of countries such as the United States (14.6 percent), Russia (8.5 percent), Japan (4.6 percent), and China (3.6 percent). The Ministry of National Defense intends to increase the rate of women officers to 5.6 percent by 2020, as part of the National Defense Reform 2020 Project. Also, the rates of commissioned and noncommissioned officers will be increased, from the current 3.9 percent and 2.1 percent, to 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
Currently, the highest ranked woman officer in the Korean military is a brigadier general, while once every two years, a woman general is appointed to serve as the principal of the Armed Forces Nursing Academy. As of July 2008, senior-ranking women officers included 1 brigadier general, 8 colonels, 60 lieutenant colonels, and 212 majors.
Up to the Challenge
In 2007, Women Net (www.women-net.net), a web portal operated by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, conducted a survey to assess the attitude of women toward serving in the military. Quite interestingly, 52.3 percent of the younger-generation respondents indicated that they “regarded military service as a new type of career” or they were “willing to give it a try.”
According to the “Gender Empowerment Measure,” a noteworthy report that includes an evaluation of Korean women in the military, published by the United Nations Development Program, the overall status of women in Korea is ranked at No. 63 in the world, while that for Korean women in the military is comparable to that of advanced countries. As a result of the wide diversity of their assignments, the standing of women in the Korean military is not far behind that of world leaders such as the United States and various EU countries. In fact, the United States does not assign women to combat command positions, while the U.K. restricts frontline duty to men only.
As for the growing attraction of the military among young women, the key factor has been the recent transformation of the military environment. A majority of women point to the broadened horizons of military service, plus an opportunity to pursue self-development. For example, they can acquire a variety of qualifications, such as taekwondo black-belt ranking or Internet information-search certification, which most men in the military eventually obtain. “A military career has a number of advantages for active young women. They can realize a greater sense of self-fulfillment because they encounter less sexual discrimination in the military than in many other workplaces,” an official of the Ministry of National Defense explained.