AFCLC, Air Force Culture and Language Center, Air Force's Global Classroom

Connecting the Dots for the Korean Marine Exchange Program

  • Published
  • By Maj. Timothy Kim, Korean LEAP Scholar, Headquarters, Acquisition Management and Integration Center

Since Republic of Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol assumed office in early May 2022, he supported the expanding joint military exercises between U.S. and ROK in response to the “threat” posed by North Korea. When President Joe Biden visited South Korea on May 21, 2022, both leaders agreed to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of joint military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula, according to the United States-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Joint Statement. After discussing and planning for six months, many joint exercises and bilateral trainings on various scales were kicked off in early 2023.

As a Language Enabled Airman Program Scholar, I had a unique opportunity to participate in the Korean Marine Exchange Program 23-1 as an interpreter. KMEP, a regularly scheduled training exercise between U.S. Marine Corps and ROK Marine Corps, featured bilateral training between the 3d Maintenance Battalion and 1st Maintenance Battalion. I was the leading interpreter between battalion commanders and occasionally Group Commander of the Marine Logistics Group. I also translated between company commanders, platoon commanders, and staff non-commissioned officers of both USMC and ROKMC. By training, living, sleeping, and eating with more than 400 Marines in various ranks, I gained insight into their military careers and how both U.S. and ROK Marines were curious about each other’s past experiences and career progressions.

I enjoyed living in expeditionary barracks, dining in an expeditionary mess hall, eating MREs for lunch, spending two nights in field conditions, and participating in various tactical trainings. I appreciated the KMEP since I could watch junior U.S. and ROK Marines standing next to each other and going through the training together. Being with the troops in expeditionary setting and field condition was the most fulfilling experience from the KMEP because I got to translate personal stories. I explained the career of the 3d Battalion Commander, how he started as a private and commissioned through a special program to the ROKMC counterparts. I was humbled when I shared the ROKMC Warrant Officer’s story over 30 years of service and saw amazement in the Marines’ eyes.

The 3d Maintenance Battalion deployed and showcased the portable expeditionary fabrication lab, or XFAB. As part of the KMEP, ROKMC provided three students the opportunity to learn XFAB capabilities, 3D printer operations, and design software. I spent most of the time interpreting for the two-week course, which sergeants and staff sergeants taught in English. My spectrum of Korean was well tested, as I needed to translate technical terms in a class setting one day, coordinate training plans between company commanders the next day, and shout tactical procedures for patrol operations the following night.

The biggest challenge I consistently struggled with was not “stealing the spotlight.” I had to find the right balance where I could translate in the background so that Marines were paying attention to the actual instructions, team members could figure out how to communicate despite language barriers, and leaders could look at each other and form trust and relationships. It was a difficult and stressful job but an extremely satisfying experience. 

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