Editor’s Note: Stripes Korea writer Hyemin Lee took part in a trip under the ROK Cultural Immersion Program in hopes of helping to get the word out about this free program for the military community in Korea.

Whether you’re single, unaccompanied, or stationed with your family in Korea, it can take a few months to get comfortable in your new surroundings. Korea has many exciting activities, a rich cultural history and delicious food to sample, but where do you begin?

The ROK Cultural Immersion Program by the ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) allows you to learn more about the country through travel, culture and cuisine with the help of experienced guides and in a group setting. The free program started in 2020 and is open to U.S. service members, UNC troops, GS employees, and their families stationed in Korea.

This year, to mark the 70th anniversary of the armistice and the ROK-U.S. alliance, the program has been revamped to provide participants with the best of the Peninsula.

In October, I joined a group to Tongyeong, Busan, and Gyeongju as part of the program. It is an incredible opportunity you’ll definitely want to take while you’re stationed in Korea. Here is what you need to know if you’re interested in taking part in a free trip that will expand your view of Korea.

Key information

  • Participants: Must be U.S troops, UNC troops, GS employees working in Korea and their dependent family members.

  • Duration: 2 nights, 3 days (Tuesday to Thursday).

  • Sessions: A total of 12 sessions per year (5 sessions in April-May, 5 sessions in October, and two Jeju Island sessions in September).

  • Locations: Seoul-DMZ, East Coast-Seorak Mountain, Jeonju-Yeosu, Gyeongju-Busan, and Jeju Island.

  • Contact: indopacom.humphreys.usfk.list.usfk-cultural-immersion-program@army.mil

Five reasons to join the ROK Cultural Immersion Program

1. Great itinerary for FREE

I'll be honest, I'm not usually a fan of group tours. However, from the moment I stepped onto the premium tour bus, all my concerns disappeared. Throughout the trip, I enjoyed a comfortable seat with plenty of space, snacks, and water offered on the bus. More importantly, the accommodations and food were outstanding! Considering most participants are U.S. military troops, all accommodations are at least 4-star hotels with gym facilities and spacious beds.

As a participant, I was deeply impressed by the dedicated and meticulous care provided throughout the 3-day program. The trip is far more valuable than just visiting tourist destinations on your own or on a standard group tour.

“It's been wonderful how smoothly the trip, food, and everything lined up, especially for us as a big family of seven,” said Aaron Gaines, a civilian with the Special U.S. Liaison Advisor Korea. “It's my first time being stationed overseas, and it's a great opportunity for an eye-opening experience and to learn about Korea.”

This program is sponsored by the Korean government as part of the ROK-U.S. Alliance Strengthening Project. All expenses, including transportation, hotels, meals, and activities, are 100 percent free for eligible participants.

2. Meaningful and educational

The distinctive feature of this program is that it’s specifically designed for the U.S. military community and UNC troops! So before you sign up, it's crucial to understand its purpose.

This program is not just about leisure or entertainment. It’s also focused on providing a comprehensive understanding of Korean history, culture and also security with a military perspective. While exploring some famous destinations, you'll have a great opportunity to learn why you are serving in South Korea and how your service contributes to the national security of this country. It can be a motivating and educational experience. If you are with family, it can be even more enlightening for your kids, helping them understand the relationship with an allied nation and the role of U.S. and UNC troops in Korea.

Also, the knowledgeable Korean guides on this tour provide detailed explanations, and they are ready to answer any question regarding the destinations or anything else about Korea.

3. Visiting top attractions in ROK

Through the ROK Cultural Immersion Program, you can explore a variety of wonderful destinations and engage in enjoyable activities like performances, taking a cruise on a ship or riding in a cable car.

Christine Sanchez, a Humphreys High School student who joined the trip with her mother, said she learned a lot from the guides and sites.

“I really enjoyed the whole experience, including even small parts like hearing tales and related stories about the sites we explored,” Sanchez said. “The explanations and movies on the bus helped us connect with the sites.”

Whether you've been in Korea for a short or long time, this program will help you discover a new side of the country!

During the two-night, three-day trip, we visited all these destinations:

  • Day 1 - Tongyeong City: Hansando Jeseongdang Shrine (Admiral Yi Sun-sin's headquarters during Imjin War in late 16th century) and Tongyeong Cablecar

  • Day 2 - Busan City: United Nations Memorial Cemetery and Hall, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Haeundae Beach

  • Day 3- Gyeongju City: Bulguksa Temple and Daereungwon

4. Explore Korea through food

Most participants, including myself, were pleasantly surprised at mealtime. The menu included various dishes such as shabu-shabu, Korean BBQ, bulgogi, and a western-style dinner buffet catered to American tastes while offering a taste of Korea.

“The food was fantastic and was absolutely my favorite part,” said Gaines, the father of five.

Since many may not be familiar with cooking Korean BBQ, all of the BBQ restaurants during the trip included a special service where staff grilled the meat for the diners. The hotels feature excellent breakfast buffets with both Korean and Western food.

5. Enjoy quality time with your favorite people

One of the best aspects of this program is that you can bring your entire family! It's also a very kid-friendly program. If you're single, you can apply with your friends. Participants who are single and families are usually separated into different groups.

Unlike typical group tours with strict itineraries, this program allows participants to enjoy some free time. In the evenings, they can get a nice walk in with family workout at the hotel gym. Also, at every site, you’re allowed to explore on your own or stick to the group with assistance from a guide.

Upon our arrival at Haeundae Beach in Busan, participants had the opportunity to enjoy their leisure time after lunch. Some chose to swim, others explored the city, and a few went to get a massage with family. Thanks to this program's adaptability, participants have plenty of chances to create lasting memories with their loved ones.

“My daughter had the opportunity to experience new things, get exposed to a different culture, and expand her horizons,” said Alejandrina Evans, a senior master sergeant with Special Operations Command Korea.

This is a special invitation for you!

The ROK Cultural Immersion Program trips are carefully planned to ensure that participants are more comfortable exploring Korea and leave with a deeper understanding of the alliance.

“South Korea, as a country on an armistice, is often perceived as a dangerous place to work,” said ROK Lt. Col. Hwang Taesung, one of the organizers of the program. “Through this program, I want our participants to understand that South Korea is a developed nation where you can have a great time and perform your duty safely while contributing to the security of the Korean Peninsula.”

The program is under the command of ROK Brigadier General Choi of CFC. ROK Colonel Shin, the Chief of CS Division, provides guidance to the ROK-U.S. alliance team. Taesung and Sergeant Major Jeong Seongyoon lead the planning and execution of all the program activities. Additionally, Alex Cho, USFK J1 Cultural Immersion Program Manager, collaborates by allocating program participants to USFK components and handling recruitment.

To ensure a highly satisfying program, they invest a lot of effort in pre-scouting destinations, as each location is carefully selected through a detailed process. Moreover, ongoing improvements are made based on feedback from participants.


Q: How often is the program held a year?

A: The program is conducted 12 times a year in spring and fall, with 200 participants recruited for each session, totaling approximately 2,400 participants annually. During each session, the 200 participants are divided into five groups, each traveling to different provinces on the Peninsula. Additionally, there is a special session held on Jeju Island twice in September.

Q: How can I join the program?

A: Recruitment of participants is overseen by USFK J1, with slots allocated to USFK components when each session is held. Most participants usually apply for the program when they receive an email regarding the program within their units. However, there's no need to wait. You can simply inquire via email (indopacom.humphreys.usfk.list.usfk-cultural-immersion-program@army.mil) at any time. Please note that obtaining approval from your unit may be necessary, as the program is conducted from Tuesday to Thursday.

Q: Do participants need to take leave to attend the program?

A: No, service members can attend the program without taking leave, as it is conducted with the official approval of USFK. Accompanying children can also participate without being marked absent from school. However, GS employees will need to take leave to attend.

Q: Can I cancel my participation in the program?

A: If, for any reason, you find yourself unable to attend the session that you have applied, it’s strongly recommended to inform point of contact as soon as possible. Occasionally, no-shows happen. Please note that in such cases, it not only wastes the budget, but also takes away the opportunity from those on the waiting list who are eager to join.

Q: Is it possible to apply for another session of the program even if I've participated before?

A: Individuals who have previously participated can apply for another session if there are available spots. However, for the Jeju Island sessions, only those who have never participated before are eligible.

Tell us about the trip

Cody Biggs (United States Forces Korea)

“I joined this program with my wife and three kids, and they absolutely loved it. This program has given us opportunities to visit various museums and sites, including the UNMC. I'm honored to be here with my family while on active duty for the U.S. Army. South Korea is where my grandfather served in the Korean War 70 years ago. I'm very proud of my family's history, knowing that my family contributes to the success of South Korea.”

Nery Jimenez (Special Operations Command Korea)

“I love to learn the history and cultural background of the country. This program has been a great experience in learning about a lot of the history of Korea, specifically the story of Admiral Yi Sun-sin was memorable. His legacy, integrity, loyalty, and great leadership are something to aspire to. It's also a great story of how he inspired his sailors to continue and move forward and fight even when the odds were against them.”

Christine Sanchez (Humphreys High School)

“My mom and I love traveling and experiencing new places and food. This program gave us a chance to experience something new that I haven't tried before. I really enjoyed the whole experience, including even small parts like hearing tales and related stories about the sites we explored. The explanations and movies on the bus helped us connect with the sites.”

Alejandrina Evans (Special Operations Command Korea)

“I love the fact that families can come with their children. My daughter had the opportunity to experience new things, get exposed to a different culture, and expand her horizons. I'm thankful to the governments for putting this program together, allowing us to spend quality time with family, experience the beauty of this country, and learn about new cultures, history and places.”

Natalie Gaines (Spouse)

“My kids love cable cars. I enjoyed the historical destinations a lot. I’ve always wanted to have an opportunity to learn more about the history of Korea, so it’s been very wonderful. And I really liked the grilled pork and other dishes.”


Defense Daily (Republic of Korea): U.S. Forces exploring Korea for the first time

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