Graduate Students Get a Hands-On International Security Experience in South Korea

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The Schar School delegation poses at the War Museum of Korea during the late May visit.
The Schar School delegation poses at the War Museum of Korea during the late May visit.

Just two days after President Biden completed his diplomatic visit to South Korea in late May, 16 Schar School graduate students followed in his footsteps and embarked on the trip of a lifetime.

Schar School Professor Ellen Laipson, director of the Schar School’s Master’s in International Security degree program, led a cohort of George Mason University students on the visit to the country. The team, made up of students from various Schar School programs—including International Security, Biodefense, Public Administration, and Public Policy—explored Busan, Incheon, Seoul, and the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

This study abroad program was the first for graduate students. Originally intended to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Korean War in 2020, the course finally launched when South Korea lifted its COVID-19 restrictions for foreign travelers.

The course, according to Laipson, was designed to expose Schar School students to the complexities of the Korean peninsula and the security challenges posed by North Korea, China's rise, and some uncertainties in recent years in the U.S.-Republic of Korea security alliance.

“President Biden's trip to Korea in late May, on the eve of the course, really focused attention on the alliance, and made the discussions with Korean experts even more pertinent,” Laipson said.

Beginning with a visit to the growing Mason campus in Songdo, academic activities included attending an international symposium at the Center for Security Policy Studies and a half-day crisis simulation involving President Harry S. Truman's decisive National Security Council meetings in 1950.

The students also had opportunities while in Seoul to visit the National Assembly, the Korean War Museum, and Yongsan Park.

“This was the first time I've ever left the country so getting to dive in and understand more of the culture, background, and issues in that part of the world was really special,” said international security student Meaghan Mackey. “All of the things we talk about and learn about are real issues and not just in a book. There are real people who are affected by these policies every day. I enjoyed getting that perspective.”

Near the end of the trip the students received a guided tour of the DMZ, which Riggs Ordonez, also an international security student, said was a highlight for him.

“It was such an eye-opening experience,” he said. “I actually thought it was really beautiful and it was hard to believe this place carried so much history—and tension.”