Dr. Olena Lennon recently visited the Republic of Korea to moderate a session at the World Emerging Security Forum, describing the experience as a remarkable opportunity to share her expertise as well as learn from prominent leaders from around the world. The experience also enabled her to engage with the country’s rich culture, including visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
July 28, 2022
In mid-May, I received an email from the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs with an invitation to the 2022 World Emerging Security Forum to moderate a session about lessons learned from Russia’s uses of cyberspace in its war against Ukraine and the implications for global cybersecurity. It was very unexpected, but six weeks later, I was on a 16-hour direct flight from New York to Seoul. It was the longest single flight I had made in my life, but flying Korean Air business class definitely made the trip feel much shorter, if not too short – so comfortable it was.
When I set foot in Incheon International Airport in Seoul, I was instantly amazed at how clean, easy-to-navigate, aesthetically-pleasing and high-tech it was. It was no surprise that it was in the top five best airports in the world and rated the world's best transit airport in 2020. (I did not know those facts at the time, but my wonderful hosts that met me at the airport had all the trivia in their arsenal.)
An hour-long drive later, my hosts checked me in at Four Seasons in downtown Seoul. As a futuristic elevator zoomed to the 29th floor (the last one), my host informed me that my room had one of the best views at the hotel. Since I arrived late in the evening, it was not until the next morning that I realized that she was not exaggerating. With the push of a button on the wall, motorized window shades over a glass wall stretching through half of my room rolled up revealing a beautiful panorama of Seoul in the rising sun. This was going to be a great trip.
World Emerging Security Forum
The World Emerging Security Forum is an annual event hosted by the South Korean government to identify present security threats, lessons learned from past threats, and ways to anticipate and prepare for emerging threats.
The Forum covered a wide range of topics from global health to climate change, energy security, and emerging technologies and featured many prominent speakers including Park Jin, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea; Ehud Olmert, Former Prime Minister of Israel; Dan Smith, Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; Kriti Sharma, founder of “AI for Good,” and many others, both virtually and in person.
My cybersecurity session featured two Washington, D.C.-based colleagues Stephen Wertheim, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and John Hultquist, Vice President of the Mandiant Corporation, a cybersecurity firm, who both joined me in person. Christopher Painter, President of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise Foundation, and Stephane Duguin, CEO of the CyberPeace Institute, joined the session virtually.
It was a fascinating conversation about Russia's cyber operations in its ongoing war in Ukraine and the implications for a global cybersecurity environment. While many experts view Russia's malicious cyber activities as part of a wider "hybrid" war to destruct, disrupt, and disinform opponents, I tend to agree more with the view that Russia’s cyber operations in Ukraine mainly – but not exclusively – serve to complement Russia’s kinetic activities in its war effort to destroy the Ukrainian state, and, typically, facilitate military activity on the ground. In other theaters, Russia’s cyber operations have, in fact, been mainly contributing to the so-called irregular warfare aimed at degrading competitors, diminishing their economic power, and spreading disinformation.
While some speakers focused more on the technical aspects of new cyber capabilities, and others on their political uses, most agreed that no matter how powerful and advanced new technologies have become, they are but instruments in states’ pursuit of political objectives. Hence, a new international legal framework governing cyberspace is needed for greater accountability, stability, and predictability.
Despite the supremacy of the political component, however, and given that cyber-attacks are carried out by both state and nonstate actors and target both government and private entities, we need innovative approaches to public-private cooperation to strengthen the cyber ecosystem.
One of the highlights of my trip was visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a strip of land that lies between the North Korean and South Korean borders, delineated by the 1953 armistice agreement. It was chilling to walk parts of the Freedom Bridge over the Imjin River between North and South Korea – the bridge was used to return thousands of prisoners of war back to the south after the armistice was signed.
The tour also included going down the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of the four tunnels that North Koreans had apparently built in the 1970s for a surprise attack on Seoul. Photography was strictly forbidden inside the tunnel, so we were asked to leave all our belongings in lockers and were handed safety helmets at the entry.
The first half of the tunnel was a steep slope, approximately six feet high and six feet wide, which gradually got narrower, both in terms of height and width. Most adults on the tour had to hunch over so as not to bump their heads against the top of the tunnel (the helmets made a lot of sense at that point). We were told that the South Korean military still actively monitor the underground to detect any new tunnels or activity, despite the fact that with North Korea having now developed long-range artillery and missiles, a possible attack would most likely open with airstrikes, but a threat of a ground invasion is never ruled out.
The tour climaxed at the Dora Observatory, where we could view North Korea through binoculars. I managed to line up my phone with the binoculars to get a picture of the North Korean flag. The North Korean flag post is apparently the fourth tallest in the world, after Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan. Coincidence or not, but it appears that the top countries that have made it a point to fly their national flag the highest are not known for their democracy.
Palaces and Politics
One cannot visit Seoul and not visit at least one of its five magnificent royal palaces. I had a chance to visit Changdeokgung Palace Complex, one of fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Korea, and Gyeongbokgung Palace, the so-called “Main Palace.” Both palaces were built in the 14th century, but were heavily damaged during the Japanese invasion in the late 16th century and during later Japanese occupations. Post reconstruction, the palaces served Korea’s royal dynasty for several generations and are currently well-preserved cradles of Korean culture and history.
I also visited the Blue House, Korea’s equivalent of the American White House. Not long before my visit to Korea, Yoon Suk Yeol, South Korea's new president, moved out of the Blue House in a dramatic gesture of breaking a six-century old tradition of Korean governments using the Blue House as their formal residence.
Citing a desire to be closer to the people, Yoon Suk Yeol moved to a more modest facility in the Ministry of Defense district and opened the Blue House to the public. As this was a fairly recent development, the Blue House tours were almost impossible to book on short notice as crowds of people had rushed to take advantage of the Blue House’s new public status and walk its history- laden chambers. Unfortunately, I did not manage to get an indoor tour, but I enjoyed seeing its grandeur, even if from the outside.
As I delved deeper into Korea’s history and culture, I learned that the new South Korean president’s dramatic departure from past practices was not limited to downsizing his place of residence and was reflected in other political choices as well. Thus, president Yoon has also signaled a more hardline approach to relationships with North Korea and announced a decision to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises with the U.S. to deter potential North Korean aggression. Yoon has also reinvigorated security cooperation with Japan (that the previous administration was more cautious about due to trust issues).
In addition, Korea’s new president has agreed to participate in the Biden administration's new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and expressed an interest in joining the Quad alongside Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. What was most intriguing to me was that president Yoon was also seeking closer cooperation with Europe. The Republic of Korea became the first in Asia to join NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, and President Yoon was the first Korean leader to attend a NATO summit. He has also imposed sanctions against Russia in solidarity with other countries. Only a few months into his presidency, President Yoon seems to have redefined the Republic of Korea’s foreign policy and posture, and signaled ambitions for the country’s more prominent global position.
Seafood, Soybeans, Saunas
Of all the countries I have visited in my life, Korea probably offered the most satisfying culinary experience, especially in the seafood category. I ate seafood for almost all of my meals, every day, and I never got tired of it, or regretted it (including having marinated octopus for breakfast).
In general, the only local specialty I did not enjoy as much was soybean ice cream. It was a must-buy at the DMZ. The soybeans produced in a clean area in the restricted DMZ zone are considered to be of superior quality. I did, however, enjoy the DMZ’s famed chocolate-covered soybeans, and even brought some home, to my kids’ (somewhat cautious) excitement.
On my last day in Seoul, my wonderful host, Hyunsun, took me to a traditional Korean barbeque restaurant. As we waited for our meat to grill – with an array of finishing garnishes, from garlic to kimchi, in front of us – the grease would occasionally shoot out prompting us to dodge and laugh. From the sizzling and hissing sounds of the grills to the smell of Korean spices and grill smoke to the local hustle and bustle, there was so much to take in and appreciate.
But as much as I appreciated the feast, what I appreciated more was getting to know my host, Hyunsun, a college senior majoring in French and Global Business Development. Hyunsun comes from a family of medical doctors and has three older sisters. An Instagram enthusiast, she shared with me her love of photography, languages, literature and fitness. We bonded over sharing our fitness routines, and I found her discipline and dedication inspiring. I told her that I had picked up running during the pandemic as it seemed like the only thing I could do outside. She seemed uninspired, admitting that running in Seoul would be a bit more challenging than running in suburban Connecticut. I hope she gets to visit me one day and is able to go for a run with me.
Among other things I enjoyed in Seoul was a full Korean sauna experience with hot and cold pools, steam rooms, wood burning saunas, and spas right at my hotel. A range of amenities at the hotel alone made it easy to stay inside all day, but I did venture out when I could. Not surprisingly, my first purchase in Seoul was an umbrella, as my arrival coincided with the start of the Monsoon season. The umbrella did not prevent me from getting completely soaked on my relatively short walks around the city, which I did not mind, as it felt like that was an authentic experience in and of itself.
The greatest joy this short — but immensely productive and enjoyable — trip afforded me was engaging with the Korean people and getting to understand their country and culture better. In addition to being incredibly hospitable and kind, Koreans impressed me with being superbly efficient, punctual and organized. Everything always ran on time.
I think Koreans’ efficiency in part stems from placing the highest value on spending quality time with family and friends. I also encountered many American exchange students, expats, and tourists in various places. Brief exchanges with them not only helped me understand and articulate my own reflections and reactions, but also planted ideas in my head about bringing my American students to Korea.
Overall, this was an amazing – literally around the world – trip, as I flew westward from New York to Seoul; from Seoul to Warsaw, then on to Ukraine (a story for another time), then back to Warsaw to catch a flight to New York. I am thankful to the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for such a memorable experience and definitely look forward to further engagements.