On Wednesday night, the Asian American Cultural Center and the Asian Network at Yale co-produced an event featuring South Korean Ministry of National Defense Maj. Dongyoun Cho.

The conversation was the final event in the Global Innovation Series, a partnership between Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program and the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale that brings global changemakers of various backgrounds to Yale to foster discussion and exchange knowledge.

Cho, a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a current World Fellow at Yale, strives to use her current position as South Korean Policy Briefing Officer to promote sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula. At the event, Cho shared her experiences pushing past challenges that led her to develop her own leadership style and answered audience questions regarding politics and policy issues surrounding South Korea.

“I thought it was very interesting to listen to someone who is a pioneer and is a woman in South Korea,” said Michael Wichman, a retired artist who has lived in New Haven for the past three years. “We could’ve spent 10 hours here, but I hope this Global [Innovation Series] program continues.”

Cho served in the South Korean military for 18 years, graduating in 2004. In a male-dominated military, she pioneered a path forward and was often the first woman to be awarded higher-level positions. Countering the prejudice of what a military officer should look like, Cho asserted that the military is a community of all different kinds of people and strongly values diversity, education and creative thinking.

When Cho was 13 years old, her family was struck by the Asian financial crisis of 1997. In order to feed her little brother, Cho took on part-time day jobs, ranging from delivering newspapers to waitressing. Her responsibilities forced her drop out of junior high school, but with the support of family and friends, she was still able to take classes at night.

Cho stressed the importance of education; right after the Korean War, people saw it as a way out of the status quo. Cho worked for a private institute, which compensated her by allowing her to take English lessons.

“If you stopped education, you do not have any future,” Cho said.

Moving forward, the Korean military academy became Cho’s only feasible option because it provided her a full scholarship and covered her living expenses. She adapted to their level of discipline — from learning proper eating and standing techniques to listening to officers yell at her and her fellow cadets. But she struggled to reach the academy’s physical demand standards.

During Cho’s stint as second lieutenant in 2004, she connected with enlisted soldiers by becoming a sister to them. All males above 18 serve in the military for two years, and because many of them do not want to participate in the strenuous training, Cho saw about one suicide a week. Her job was to look after 30 soldiers and train new recruits. Cho built a cozy library in the barracks, filling it with book donations, so that soldiers could read books and learn lessons from her. In the military, this was a completely nontraditional way of mentoring.

“It was really interesting to see her examples of how she navigated through the bureaucracy: Just wait sometime, and then see where the perfect opportunity is to be able to insert your own ideas,” said Lucy Zhu ’21, a coordinator for the event. “I think that’s a very practical and realistic way to approach the issue.”

Although Cho viewed herself as an average cadet, both in the physical and academic sense, she knew how to understand her community to then properly create change. The South Korean military academy has traditionally protected citizens from North Korean threats. But due to the recent peace treaty negotiated between the two Koreas, South Korea has begun to prepare for threats differently. The Army Chief of Staff, head of the biggest department in the military, asked Cho to be a policy advisor to help Korea develop creative answers to future issues.

One of Cho’s challenges is to communicate between military relations, her area of study at Yale. Cho has served in Iraq and Japan to understand and expose herself to these regions — allowing her to learn their language, ways of thinking and strategies to manage threats.

“It’s been a pleasure to work in collaboration. Once you work in collaboration, [we can] not only share stories around leadership but think about how to tackle real-world problems on a practical, human level,” said Baljeet Sandhu, Innovator in Residence at Tsai CITY. “The west also has to learn a lot from the rest of the world: How do we, now as a global community, learn from each other? The face of leadership is very diverse, and feedback from students has been brilliant.”

Audience members included a South Korean graduate of Yale College class of 2005, a current Yale undergraduate whose mother is a civilian in the U.S. Department of Defense and a medical student interested in exploring South Korean medical aid to North Korea.

Katherine Du | katherine.du@yale.edu