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Sailor of the Year gets glimpse of combat-ready South Koreans 

South Korea is known for its students’ world-beating test scores in reading and maths. It looks like its troops could also beat the rest of the world when it comes to combat-readiness.

During a recent visit to Pyeongtaek, base of South Korea’s 2nd Fleet, POSA Ben Owens learnt that majority of the 7000 officers and sailors live on board the ships as “they are required to be within 10 minutes of the base so they can sail at short notice.”

POSA Owens inspecting the ROK Corvette CHEONAN, which was sunk by DPRK torpedo on 10 March, at Pyeongtaek

At Conference Row, a number of United Nations buildings within the demilitarised zone (DMZ) used for negotiations between North and South Korea, Republic of Korea (ROK) guards are required to be a black belt in judo or karate.

Having exchanged blows in the past with guards from the communist North, “they adopt a martial art stance commonly referred to as ‘ROK ready’ while at their post,” according to PO Owens. The stance involves standing upright, with the feet about shoulder width apart from one another.

PO Owens and fiancé LCO Karen Paisley visited South Korea from 6-14 October as part of his prize as the 2010 Sailor of the Year. Colonel Jeremy Ramsden, New Zealand’s Defence Advisor in Seoul, said the programme for the couple’s visit featured a mix of cultural and military engagements.

This included a day-long tour of the DMZ, where they happily snapped as many as 30 photos, with encouragement from their US military escorts.

But for PO Owens, it was the trip to Paengnyong Do island that demonstrated the deadly consequences of the more than 60 years of tension between North and South Korea. The island is close to a disputed maritime boundary on the west of the divided peninsula and the scene of deadly clashes in the past.

A South Korean Navy corvette, Cheonan, sank just off Paengnyong Do on March 26 as a result of a North Korean torpedo attack, killing all 46 sailors on board. The attack came only four months after North Korea shelled nearby Yeonpyeong island, killing two South Korean soldiers and wounding 17 others.

“The damage to the ship is incredible; it now sits in three pieces,” PO Owens said after seeing Cheonan’s charred remains.

At Paengnyong Do, PO Owens also presented scholarships to 12 outstanding students of the island’s Middle School. Funding for these scholarships come from the NZ Korea War Veterans’ Association and is supplemented by the NZ Embassy in Seoul and Korean and NZ companies.

Col Ramsden said the NZ Navy has a special connection with Paengnyong Do dating back to the Korean War, when our frigates helped protect the island from North Korea’s attempted invasions.

Two students later presented Col Ramsden with money that the children collected to help Norm Scoles, one of the Kiwi veterans affected by the Christchurch earthquake.

Apart from the smog and fog, which were the constant spoilers during their trip, PO Owens marvelled at the huge difference in population and Navy personnel numbers between South Korea and NZ. Ten million people live in the South Korean capital alone, more than twice the size of NZ’s population. The number of sailors in South Korea’s 2nd Fleet is roughly equivalent to the combined number of our Navy and Army regulars.

The gender imbalance is quite stark though. There are only 30 females in the entire 2nd Fleet, three of whom are serving at sea.

“The whole trip was an awesome experience,” according to PO Owens. “I feel fortunate to have been given the opportunity to visit South Korea.”

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