Category: Student Life

SAIS Europe Staff Ride to Monte Cassino, Italy


CASSINO, ITALY – “I don’t think I’m ever going to forget the empty streets of San Pietro.”– Zeke Schumacher, SAIS MA student

A ”Staff Ride” is a trip provided for participants to conduct a case study at the site of a major event. It contains three parts: a preliminary study, a site visit, and a post-visit debrief. Strategic Studies students at the SAIS Europe campus coordinated a staff ride to the hollowed grounds of Monte Cassino. On the weekend of November 24th-26th, SAIS students and faculty educated themselves on how various factors, such as the strategic value, complexity, challenges in leadership and terrain affected military operations.

Monte Cassino was the scene of arguably the most bitter fighting of WWII.  The constant barrage of airstrikes and artillery shelling lasted four months and included four separate offensives to break the German “Gustav Line,” leaving the area wracked with lasting damage.  The organizers of the staff ride sought to examine this battle because of its importance in the Italy campaign. I interviewed the leadership team to gain further insight into the planning and execution of the staff ride and whether the planners achieved what they set out to do.

T.J.: Welcome back from the trip! My first question for you is, what made you plan this trip?

Zeke: (Zeke Schumacher, SAIS MA student) In the Strategic Studies program here in Bologna, we are a long way away from Washington, but when we told them about this trip, they were helpful with the trip. Staff rides to battle sites are common at SAIS DC, but are not over in Italy.  Our purpose was to establish the tradition here.

Sebastian: (Sebastian Dannhoff, SAIS MA student): We feel that academically, our Strat program is on par with DC, but we’re not as active with our extracurricular learning experience.  Noticing this deficiency, we took it upon ourselves to build this staff ride, so that we’re getting a parallel experience to our DC peers, and to provide those outside Strat with an interactive experience.

Mike: (Mike Marrone, SAIS MA student and former Captain, US Army): If you’ve never been to war, it’s difficult to identify with the terrain, defensive positions – to include natural and manmade obstacles, impacts of weather, and other barriers that affect military movements, maneuvers, and tactics. The staff ride offered students the opportunity to analyze the terrain, and see firsthand the effects on the ground as it relates to strategy and operations.  Essentially, the staff ride transformed what we read in books to the physical and tangible aspects of warfare that affect so deeply the challenges and decision-making of military planning at all levels of operations.

Veronica: (Veronica Trujillo, SAIS MA student): Just to say, this was not just a Strat thing, this was open to everyone.

Devan: (Devan Kerley, SAIS MA student): This presented the opportunity for fellow students to learn by doing.

Zeke: We came in with no idea of what a SAIS staff ride looked like. Dr. Karlin, the Assistant Director of Strategic Studies at SAIS, took the time to explain the process, placed us in touch with the right people and even helped us financially for the trip. We are deeply grateful for her mentorship and assistance.

T.J.: Were there any surprises during the trip?

Veronica: Pleasantly surprised with how many non-Strat concentrators participated. 24 students participated, and among them we had four military veterans.

T.J.: Did the veterans add value to the trip?

All: Yes. They provided unique context into the inner-workings of all warfighting functions*, explained in detail the level of coordination required to pull off such a difficult battle, and added a lot of value to the trip – they turned it from a field trip to a staff ride.

*Warfighting functions differ from Army and Marine Corps, but generally are fire, maneuver, logistics, command and control, intelligence, and force protection

Devan: Also, our guide, Dr. Danila Bracaglia, was so invested into our experience. She was so important to the success of this trip because unlike most staff rides, we didn’t have faculty to accompany the ride. Her knowledge filled that gap.

Sebastian: Pleasantly surprised by the degree of preparation and participation by all students, especially the non-native English speakers (there were nine non-native speakers from China, South Korea, Italy, Germany, Uruguay, India and Mexico). Each student was assigned a role to research and brief to the participants.  Everyone read ahead and gave quality briefs.

Zeke: We were surprised by how long everything took, but it’s a good thing. We ran behind because of the engaged interaction between all members of the staff ride.

ride 4
Photo Credit: T.J Sjostrom


During the trip, the team visited the Monte Cassino monastery, the site of the controversial Allied bombing campaign that destroyed it.  Following the exhibit at the monastery, the team visited Point 593. Point 593 is the highest ground surrounding Monte Cassino, the Polish War Cemetery, and the Rapido River, which divided the Axis and Allied forces in the Liri Valley and San Pietro (the village destroyed by Allied forces as they sought to wrest control of the high ground and break the Gustav Line). After four devastating months, the Allied forces finally broke the Gustav line and eventually made it to Rome to liberate the city.  I had one final question for the planning team.

T.J.: Did this trip accomplish what you intended to achieve?

Mike: Yes; we achieved camaraderie and esprit de corps.

Sebastian: It exceeded our expectations; we were able to create a baseline for future Bologna-based trips, making this easier in the future.

Devan: We’re being very intentional with feedback, notes, lessons learned from the trip, so we can further refine the process.

Veronica: It was really successful in getting people out of the classroom and putting them in the roles and mindsets of leaders – you can’t learn that element in a classroom.

Mike: It wasn’t just about Strat – we had representation from several concentrations. This staff ride has relevance to nearly all concentrations in one way or another at SAIS.

Zeke: Trying to think of this battle as a nexus between much bigger considerations that led up to the battle, and proceeded from it.

In unison, all agreed that the staff ride was “worth it.”

As a participant and a veteran, I concur with the planning team – the trip was worth it.

Photo Credit: Veronica Trujillo
ride 3
Photo Credit: Sarahann Yeh.  From left: Zeke, Devan, Veronica, Sebastian, and Mike

T.J. Sjostrom is the Deputy Editor-in-chief of The SAIS Observer and a first year European and Eurasian Studies concentrator at SAIS Europe in Bologna, Italy.

Student Profile: Fitz Fitzpatrick


To the casual observer, Fitz Fitzpatrick may seem to be an overly diligent student who spends an inordinate amount of time in the library. In fact, he jokes that in some regards he is more familiar with the student computer room at SAIS Europe than with the city of Bologna.

Upon closer look, however, one comes to understand a man who has devoted much of his life to the service of his country.  At an early age, Colonel Fitzpatrick became interested in a career in the armed forces. In his words, Fitz saw a career in the military as the opportunity to do a “white collar job in the woods”. Drawing inspiration from his father, who served in Germany during the early Cold War, and from an uncle who had a thirty year career in infantry, Fitzpatrick studied History at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore with an ROTC scholarship.

Photo by Michele Choy

Surprisingly, Fitz credits time spent as a radio news reporter in Frederick County, MD, as playing an important role in his later military career. As an Army Civil Affairs Officer in Bosnia, Djibouti, Iraq, and Kuwait, he drew upon earlier interactions with local government officials.

“In 1999, I met with a municipal electric director in Ugljevik, Bosnia,” he said, “and it struck me that his concerns were similar to those of a water commissioner I interviewed for the radio station two decades earlier.”

If there is a pattern in Fitz’s career, it is that he finds similarities in seemingly disparate situations.  After eight years in the infantry, mostly in Korea, Fitzpatrick returned to the Homewood campus in 1993, where he earned a Masters in Geography. His thesis on Base Realignment and Closure at Fort Ritchie, MD, informed his understanding of a steel mill closure in Zenica, Bosnia, and he was able to discuss the issue of secondary- and tertiary-unemployment with the Turkish Commander responsible for security and reconstruction of the area.

Fitz was previously accepted to the MIPP program in 2005, but delayed the opportunity to take a tour of duty with Joint Forces Command, in Norfolk, VA, and then to serve as Deputy Commander of the Civil Affairs Brigade in Baghdad during 2006-2007. This was the year of the ‘surge’, and his duties included oversight for Army Civil Affairs companies and battalions supporting 20 Maneuver Brigades and three Division Headquarters, in the various regions of Iraq.  

Colonel Fitzpatrick retired from the U.S. Army in 2012, and has been studying Arabic with Middlebury College and German with the Goethe Institute ever since. After SAIS, Fitz intends to do an additional year or two of language study, before returning to work with the U.S. government or with an international agency.  

“I have worked with excellent interpreters, but nothing matches the ability to actually talk one-on-one with your counterpart, regardless if it is the news, military, or diplomatic field.”

Garrett Sweitzer is the Managing News Editor of the SAIS Observer as well as a first year M.A student in European and Eurasian Studies.

Playing with Power


The United States, Russia, and China have entered a new era of “power grabs”. Smaller regional powers are emerging and flexing their muscles in anticipation of expansion like dogs impatiently waiting under the dinner table. North Korea, South Korea, the Philippines and Japan consider themselves among the contenders in Asia.

Dr. Victor Cha is an impressive figure and notable expert on Asia. He serves as   Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, Korea Chair at CSIS and former Director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council. Dr. Cha made an appearance at SAIS with his books in tow when the Sejong Society and the U.S.-Korea Institute hosted him on October 14, 2016.

Why did Asia never have its own form of NATO? Unlike Europe, Asia is a combination of large landmass and separate islands. During the Cold War, Europe’s bipolarity was clearly defined, even down to a dividing wall. Meanwhile, a third actor, China, further complicated the situation in Asia. Economic interdependence brought Europe closer together as a community but initially separated Asia. Dr. Cha focused his attention on Asia’s choice to not have a NATO equivalent, thus differentiating his book from those already on the table that merely regurgitate history.

The U.S. originally oriented itself towards Asia through trade interests and Christian missionary activities. Due to the growing threat of Communism in Asia, the U.S. executed a grand strategic policy of containment and intervened in countries like Korea and Vietnam. Much to China’s dismay, the U.S. is now imposing its interests on Asia and containing China. In reaction, China is making its own “power play” by creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and assertively pressing claim to the South China Sea using multilateral institutions and bilateral relations.

Compiling his concluding remarks, Dr. Cha predicted that Asia would not have one single community resembling a NATO or an EU. Instead, the architecture of Asia is a “noodle bowl” of institutions that are partially overlapping and parallel. Albeit a complex and messy state of international relations, Asia is replete with issues of unresolved history, territorial disputes, and security dilemmas. Regime theory suggests that an increasing number of institutions in Asia does not result in a zero-sum scenario. Rather, this complexity can play a positive role.

“Don’t expect Asia to look like Europe, because it won’t,” is the mantra to take up. The U.S., Russia, and China are in a counterbalancing act in Asia as each vies for power, and the rest of the countries in Asia are meddling with the entwined love-hate triangle.

Despite sharing a last name, Joniel Cha and Dr. Victor Cha are not related.

Taipei City Guide




While Tokyo, Beijing or Shanghai may be conventional vacation choices, Taipei should be your next travel destination. Though Taipei may be small and not the most aesthetically pleasing city in the world, it’s Asia’s hidden gem. As a culinary and cultural melting pot, Taipei should not be overlooked.

Arriving in Taipei

Most visitors fly into Taoyuan International Airport (TPE), but occasionally you may fly to the older Songshan International (TSA). Irrespective of which you airport you land in, Taipei Metro or MRT, high speed rail, a bus or taxi will get you to Taipei quickly.


On a budget? Book a hotel, hostel or Airbnb near a Metro line. Most travelers stay within walking distance of the night markets.  

Where to go in Taipei

Beitou Hot Springs (MRT Xinbeitou)

Take a dip in one of Beitou's many hot springs and resorts. Taken by Susan Wang
Take a breather in Beitou, dip into a relaxing hot bath at any resort in the Beitou area (Photo Courtesy: Susan Wang)

Taipei is known for its wonderful hot springs. They are located north of the city and can be easily accessed via MRT. Take the MRT then take a cab to your hot springs resort.

I would highly recommend that you pamper yourself and go to the Grand View Resort Beitou. This hotel resort is a relaxing oasis right outside of Taipei city. Enjoy the comforts of your own private hot springs, a breathtaking view of the mountains, and the public hot spring baths (gender separate). Not only does the resort offer relaxation as you soak in the hot sulfur water, the meals are not to be missed. A choice of Western or Chinese style breakfast is offered in the morning with a breathtaking view of rolling green hills.

Bonus tip: Book during the weekday if possible as the weekends fill up with reservations, making it impossible to visit.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial (MRT C.K.S.)

A visit to C.K.S memorial is a must in Taipei-Taken Susan Wang
CKS Memorial is a must visit in Taipei. A tribute to Chiang Kai Shek himself, similar to the Lincoln Memorial in DC (Photo Courtesy: Susan Wang)

Similar to the Lincoln Memorial in size, the C.K.S. Memorial is dedicated to Taiwan’s KMT leader Chiang Kai Shek and home to the National Performance Center. The scale of this memorial square is comparable to Tiananmen. It is walking distance to Guting and Shida night markets.

Elephant Mountain (MRT Xiangshan)

For nature lovers and avid photographers, the 40-minute hike to the top will give you a breathtaking view of Taipei and the Taipei 101 skyscraper.

Muzha Tea Plantations (Closed on Mondays, MRT Taipei Zoo—Maokong Gondola Station)

Take the Maokong gondola ride and spend a day away from the city. Visitors can sample tea and enjoy a walk around the tea plantations. Trailheads and maps are marked clearly. You can also enjoy a good cup of kung fu tea at any tea house around the area.

National Palace Museum (MRT Shilin and then Taxi or Bus)

Home to a vast collection of ancient Chinese artifacts, bronze, jades, calligraphy, paintings and more, the National Palace Museum is a museum and history buff’s paradise. Check online for rotating exhibitions. The museum has extended hours on Friday and Saturday. Head there during the evening to avoid large tourist groups.

Night Markets

Photo Courtesy: Susan Wang

To fully experience the culinary culture of Taiwan, be sure to stop at the many night markets around Taipei. Try the cold tahini noodles, fried tempura, oyster omelette, pineapple buns, fried pot stickers, the pork belly “gua bao” buns and the famous mango shaved ice.

  • Keelung (train ride outside Taipei city)
  • Lehua
  • Ningxia
  • Raohe
  • Shida
  • Shilin

Yongkang Street (MRT Dongmen Exit #5)

Enjoy a bowl of spicy beef noodle soup at Yongkang beef noodle house. Lines are common, but worth the wait.
Enjoy a spicy noodle bowl in Yongkang (Photo Courtesy: Susan Wang)

Home to the original Ding Tai Feng restaurant and Yong Kang Noodle House, this area is a gourmand’s paradise. From Japanese cuisine to street food or traditional Taiwanese cooking, this area will satiate your hunger and be easy on the wallet. Be sure to order the truffle dumplings at Ding Tai Feng.

Taipei 101 Observatory Tower (MRT Taipei 101)

Have a fear of heights? You may want to skip this. Otherwise, take the fastest elevator in the world and enjoy a breathtaking view of Taiwan. Avoid rainy days as cloud cover will block your view of the city. While there, I recommend the mango ice cream beer floats, they are quite tasty.


Tips for the traveler

  1. Have an unlocked phone? Purchase a data SIM card at the airport. Taoyuan offers different data packages and the staff is incredibly helpful. Data packages are affordable even on a budget. Don’t want data? Free Wi-FI is available all over Taipei, but it can be spotty.
  2. You can purchase MRT passes at any MRT station (one day, two days or even five days). These passes are good for the MRT and buses, which can take you all over Taipei.
  3. Family Mart and 7-11 will be your best friends while you travel. They are your one-stop shops for toiletries, snacks, umbrellas, and socks. I say socks because when it rains, it pours. You can even pick up your high speed rail tickets there.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions! Taiwanese people are friendly and incredibly hospitable.
  5. Download the Taipei MRT metro app or email me at for more tips and ideas.

Wanda World

wanda - matt damon
Matt Damon on stage with fellow cast members for the movie “The Great Wall” (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)


To misquote Deng Xiaoping, “To get rich is glorious!”

Since the 1980s, China has experienced the most rapid economic expansion of any country in the history of the world. Millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty and a new burgeoning middle-class has been flourishing in urban centers all over China. The urban population of China has grown from 20% to more than 55% in the past 30 years. This rapid urbanization has led to innumerable business opportunities and untold fortunes. The biggest of those fortunes belongs to Wang Jianlin, China’s wealthiest person (net worth: $29.1 billion), the founder and chairman of Wanda Group.

wanda wang jianlin
Wanda founder Wang Jianlin (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Mr. Wang was born in Sichuan, China in 1954 to a Communist war hero who survived the Long March and fought alongside Mao Zedong. At 15, he joined the People’s Liberation Army and served for 17 years before leaving to become a bureaucrat in Dalian. Not long after, he came across an opportunity to get into business. A state property company was on the brink of bankruptcy and Mr. Wang got involved, either by borrowing $80,000 to buy the company or by working his way up through the company, depending on the source. Regardless, Mr. Wang took control of the company and quickly made his mark on residential real estate in Dalian through the use of innovative building techniques, a focus on the newly emerging middle class and a premium price tag.

From his takeover through the early 2000s, Mr. Wang engineered three major restructurings of Wanda. First, in 1993, Wanda began to emphasize national and cross-regional development and then, in 1998, to concentrate on commercial real estate. Finally, in 2001, Mr. Wang began to diversify Wanda by investing in cultural property. While the first two restructurings brought fame and fortune to Mr. Wang inside China, it was diversification that has brought Mr. Wang international prestige.

Wanda Group (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Wanda brand now includes luxury hotels in London, Madrid, Los Angeles, Chicago, the Gold Coast, and Sydney; the British yacht maker Sunseeker (Mr. Wang originally planned to buy 30 Sunseeker yachts but then decided to just buy the company); thousands of movie theaters in the United States (AMC Theaters), Australia (Hoyts) and China; Legendary Entertainment (producers of Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, “Inception” and “Jurassic World,” to name a few); and is currently building the largest movie studio in the world. Furthermore, Wanda has quickly become  the largest sports company in the world (according to Wanda), with holdings including World Triathlon Group (owner of Ironman), 20% of Atlético Madrid, and Infront Sports & Media (which controls the rights to more than 4,000 sports events per year, including the Winter Olympics, FIFA (2015 to 2022) and the World Cup (2018 and 2022). With additional plans to develop the Wanda Finance Group and Wanda Cultural Tourism Cities, Mr. Wang’s aim is to make Wanda “a brand known by everyone in the world.”

With such grand ambitions, it is worth remembering Mr. Wang’s background and note his own remarks on business and government in China: “China is a government-oriented economy. No one can say he runs his business entirely without government connections.”

A Chinese company whose chairman openly works with the Communist Party of China owns the second largest movie theater chain in the United States and a major movie production company. One explanation for the Legendary Entertainment purchase is that Wanda can now produce and distribute Hollywood-powered movies in China and skirt the foreign film quotas (currently 34 movies per year).

Another explanation is the ability to convey Chinese soft power across movie screens the world over. Slated for release later this year, “Great Wall” features Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe in a Hollywood blockbuster shot entirely in China alongside a slew of Chinese actors. With China’s desire to project its influence far from its borders, Wanda may be becoming the motion picture arm of the Office of Propaganda.

Some have said that in actuality, all major motion picture companies are bending the knee to China. The Chinese market is so lucrative that movie companies already abide by Beijing’s edicts, therefore the Legendary acquisition won’t change much. While this may be true, what I fear is that in the not-too-distant future, Beijing will also be dictating what is and is not acceptable in American theaters. What if a movie is critical of China or Chinese people or is in some way offensive to Beijing? Wanda owns the second-largest movie theater chain in the United States; would they censor or ban the film? While Wanda stretches its businesses across the globe, I can’t help but think of the last line in their promotional video on Facebook: “As the world accepts Wanda, Wanda is also changing the world.”

SAIS Seeks Out Bologna’s Secrets

Bolonga Skyline
Photo Courtesy: Fatima Nanavati


Bologna, home to the SAIS Europe campus, is often ignored due to its scruffy and scrappy first impression. However, along with its fascinating history, delicious cuisine, and creative festivals, it also embraces a series of city secrets that many locals spend years uncovering. With the help of a few native Italians and astute local professors, SAIS students went on a hunt to discover these and not only found a few favorites from the official list of Bologna Secrets but also added a couple of their own special treasures.

  1. Neptune fountainThe Neptune Fountain: This is a surprising and hilarious addition to the official list of secrets in Bologna. Built in the mid-1500s, the monument represents Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, extending his reach and controlling the waters surrounding Italy. However, it is said that the sculptor, Giambologna, was offended by instructions from the cardinal to reduce Neptune’s virility (specifically, the size of his penis) due to strict religious rules at the time. Giambologna complied but not without secretly designing the statue’s outstretched finger in a manner that would restore the God’s dignity. So, if you stand upon a small black cobblestone near the entrance of Sala Borsa behind the fountain, you will see the illusion of mighty Neptune’s particularly large erection.

  2. Whispering Walls in Palazzo del Podestà:  A popular trend in architecture during the Middle Ages was the insertion of whispering galleries throughout cathedrals, under bridges, and through private corridors. A whispering gallery is simply constructed in the form of a curved wall or arcade that allows for whispered communication from any part of the structure. The archway in the middle of Bologna’s Palazzo Podestà is home to one such wonder. If you speak quietly into one of the four corners, a person standing at the opposing end facing the wall will be able to hear you clearly, even amidst the hustle and bustle of the city center.

  3. ArrowsArrows of Corte Isolani: The entrance of Corte Isolani on Strada Maggiore is known for a series of trendy shops and hipster bars. However, if you take a moment to stop and look upwards at the wooden portico, you will notice three arrows stuck between the beams. Legend has it one night three thieves were planning to shoot arrows at the Lord of Bologna, who lived on the third floor. Suddenly, the men were distracted by a beautiful, naked woman in another window and mistakenly shot their arrows up into the ceiling, sparing the Lord’s life. It is rumored that a fourth arrow is hiding in between a portico on Via Indipendenza as well.

  4. LIttle VeniceLittle Venice: Unknown to most newcomers, Bologna sits on top of a network of underground canals that were originally constructed similar to the ones in Venice during the 12th century. They were previously used for the import and export of goods to Bologna’s industrial sector. Today, while strolling through the city’s cobblestone streets, you can often spot one of these hidden waterways. The most prominent is seen on Via Piella through a small window that opens up to the Canale delle Moline, which branches off from Canale di Reno. Although many of the other canals have been closed, there are still many guides who help with tours of the remaining underground waterways.

  1. Ruins Under Sala BorsaBiblioteca Sala Borsa: This is the main public library in Bologna and was moved to the center of the city in 2001, flanking Piazza del Nettuno and Piazza Maggiore. Not only is this a great space to study and read, but also the library is a gateway into Bologna’s history with a huge glass floor overlooking an archeology dig underneath the building. The century-old ruins are remains from original Roman streets that go on for miles and can be toured for free throughout the day. You can also stop by the “Fall in Coffee” bar on the main floor to grab a quick bite, espresso, or classy glass of wine while people-watching. If you are lucky, you can catch some concerts hosted by Sala Borsa, mostly aimed at drawing in the young Bologna community.

  2. Medieval Bologna BY Toni Pecoraro 2012Towers of Bologna: The Towers of Bologna is a group of medieval structures scattered across the city since the 12th century. Competing historians continue to debate over the legend behind the towers; some say wealthy families used the height of their towers to demonstrate their power, others claimed they were used as prisons or strongholds, and some say they were for offensive or defensive purposes. The most famous are the Two Towers, the taller called Asinelli and the smaller Garisenda, which are located in the middle of the city center. However, outside of the city walls, you can go up various towers to catch an amazing view of the San Luca Basilica, have a delicious aperitivo, enjoy a glow-in-the-dark dance party, or have a romantic retreat. Check out the B&B and annual parties in the 900-year-old Torre Prendiparte for more adventure.

Amidst the chaos of school work and the temptation to travel outside of Bologna, SAIS students have expressed great interest in finding more hidden treasures around town, especially as spring brings better weather.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Additional photos have been added to this story at 18:56 GMT on 12 April 2016.

Korean Reunification Study Tour

Korea study tour_US Embassy_PREFERRED
Photo Courtesy: Professor Eunjung Lim


The 150-mile-long inter-Korean border is one of the world’s most heavily armed regions. With the opening of Cuba, the Korean peninsula is now the only place where the Cold War still persists. Witnessing the demise of communism and the Arab Spring, one may naturally think North Korea will follow suit, and the two Koreas will reunify. However, Pyongyang still has a firm grip of the northern part of Korea, continues developing nuclear weapons, and persecutes some 28 million people. How can we overcome these challenges and restore the “Land of Morning Calm”? In search of the answer, 13 SAIS students, led by Professor Eunjung Lim, flew to Seoul during spring break.

Over the course of a week, the class visited 19 institutions, including government agencies, think tanks, companies, and an NGO. As busy as it was, the trip was full of learning. A noted expert on transitional economy, Dr. Kim Byung-yeon of Seoul National University, pointed out that North Korea is no longer a closed economy, with its external dependence amounting to more than 50 percent. In his view, the conventional security-oriented approach, neglecting such realities, failed to elicit a genuine change. Therefore, Kim insisted that we change Pyongyang’s economic constraints to alter its behavior through a combination of sanctions and engagement rather than a rigid containment policy. At Pangyo Techno Valley, a high-tech cluster near Seoul, students were mesmerized by Korea’s venture industry. In particular, innovations in information technology would have significant impacts on the two Koreas.

Learning continued at night. Mr. Marc Knapper, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, hosted a reception for the group at his beautiful residence overlooking the 600-year-old capital. The event’s warm environment reflected the ever more robust U.S.-Korea alliance. Dr. Bae Jung-ho, Secretary General of the National Unification Advisory Council, invited the students to a dinner with scholars and North Korean refugees.

Students were also exposed to contrasting views on various issues, from the incumbent president’s reunification policies to the more fundamental question of whether reunification itself is even needed. While most Koreans concurred that the two Koreas should reunify at some point, they diverged on the specifics. For instance, Seoul’s position is to pursue a German-style, peaceful reunification on the principle of mutual trust. Yet, some experts expressed concerns over the administration’s inflexibility vis-à-vis Pyongyang. In addition, many seemed worried about practical problems, such as financial burdens and social integration. Younger generations were less enthusiastic; some even rejected the necessity. One scholar said Seoul should discard reunification as a national strategy and regard North Korea as a state, as does the United Nations. South Korea’s constitution does not recognize North Korea as a legitimate state, and vice versa.

The class had an unusual opportunity to meet with several prominent North Korean defectors. Journalist Joo Seong-ha at DongA Daily, who defected in 2002, shared his experiences and insights. Mr. Joo emphasized that Kim Jong-un will never forgo his nuclear program, unless the United States guarantees his survival. Nor will Kim use it, said Joo, since he is the richest individual on the peninsula. As such, Joo held that denuclearization can only be achieved through a settlement between Washington and Pyongyang. Another renowned defector-scholar, Dr. Choi Kyung-hee, spoke about the lack of understanding on North Korea. Researchers only acquire superficial knowledge of a society, Choi argued, without actually having lived there. This is a perennial problem among North Korea watchers in both Seoul and Washington.

In addition, the students visited Hanawon, a rehabilitation center under the Ministry of Unification, and Yeomyung School, an alternative school for refugees, where they looked at the issue from a very different perspective. People usually talk about high politics, such as denuclearization or great power diplomacy, when discussing inter-Korean affairs; little attention is paid to defectors, however. Unfortunately, such defectors often experience tragic incidents while fleeing, such as human trafficking or the execution of their families remaining in North Korea. They often say, if reincarnated, they would accept everything except being born in North Korea. Even worse, the South Korean society is rather aloof―sometimes even discriminatory―toward the refugees, only deepening their trauma. Students got teary-eyed as Ms. Cho Myung-sook, Yeomyung School’s vice principal, narrated such heart-wrenching stories.

Whether the two Koreas will reunify is still an open question. For sure, it is a daunting task, and may not even happen in our lifetimes. Also, there are divergent views across the political spectrum and generations. However, one thing is clear: the Korean peninsula deserves our attention. As a byproduct of the Cold War, the inter-Korean division is our collective responsibility―a situation that threatens global security and causes millions of people to live under unspeakable conditions. The times call for action, and the task is now ours.

The 2016 SAIS Korea trip was made possible through the generous support of many institutions and individuals. In particular, the author would like to express his deepest gratitude to those who have sponsored the Korea Studies program at SAIS.

10 Surprises in Cuba

Cuba photo
A view of the National Theater in Havana (Photo Courtesy: Colin Wright)


Just days before President Obama’s state visit to Cuba, SAIS students traveled to Havana for a study tour to examine the capital’s urban development. Below, guest contributor and study tour participant Danielle Schwab shares with the SAIS community some of the more surprising things she encountered while on the tour:

  1. Not enough water. There is only one brand of bottled water in Cuba, and it is not ubiquitously sold. Even if you do stumble across a tiny store, you may have to settle for beer or soda instead.
  2. Cubans are very politically aware. Due to their unique history, the average Cuban pays close attention to international relations and knows those countries with which Cuba is allied with and their changing relationships.
  3. Free healthcare. We heard from many Cubans about the pride they take in their free healthcare system. One night, a friend was stung by a bee. This was worrisome because the friend is allergic to bees. However, the first clinic we visited offered treatment free-of-charge. There wasn’t a doctor on staff at the time, and the conditions of the facility were questionable, but the treatment was quick and didn’t cost a penny!
  4. Food shortages. Though extreme poverty was not immediately evident, food was surprisingly difficult to come by. Unlike most Latin American countries with sprawling fruit and vegetable markets, it was rare to see a vender with plantains, let alone anything else.  Restaurants often had few options on their menu, or nothing at all.
  5. Dilapidated buildings. Many buildings were in a ramshackle state or abandoned.  Although this adds to the charm of Havana, the assumption is that these structures will slowly start to be restored and inhabited once requisite materials and capital becomes more available.
  6. Strong sense of national pride.. Even though many Cubans recognize that Cuba needs to restore relations with the United States, they are wary of the implications when it comes to values and political culture; many still have great respect for the revolution. For example, when I asked my landlady if the streets were being paved because of the upcoming visit by President Obama, she was quick to clarify that the paving process had begun weeks beforehand, and that it was not related to the President’s visit.
  7. Air conditioners are everywhere. While food is hard to find, air conditioners are not. We learned that Castro categorized air conditioning as a human right, and greatly subsidized electricity such that all Cubans could afford cool air.
  8. Obsession with Jose Marti. A celebrated writer and nationalist leader, Marti is viewed as an “Apostle of Cuban Independence.” We heard of his writings on several occasions and his images or quotes were visible in many homes and businesses.
  9. The old cars. They really are as cool as people say. The really unique ones serve as expensive taxis and provide joy rides to tourists all day long.
  10. Lack of capitalism in general. To those of us used to markets and choice, this is surprising. There is very little choice in terms of products in Cuba. As far as we could tell, there was one brand of soda and one brand of water. As noted above, there was nothing that resembled a food market, let alone a convenience store such as CVS or 7/11, a common sight here in Washington. 

Under the Athens Sun


A city that combines ancient ruins with modern architecture, Athens is the perfect place to visit before finishing your studies at SAIS Europe. Ideally, a perfect destination for Spring break.

FullSizeRender (1)But, what makes Athens so special? The people? The sun? The nightlife or the history? Embark with me on this brief journey and let me take you around Athens.

The first thing you will notice while in Athens is that Greeks know how to make every moment count. For those wishing to have the time of their lives, Athens is the perfect place. Why? Because of the luxurious and modern cocktail bars and clubs that create an unexpected mosaic. Most of them are located in downtown Athens, in Monastiraki, Thyseio, Gazi and Kolonaki, and more often than not, they have a breathtaking view of the Acropolis.

Thus, if the idea of having a cocktail under the Athenian sky, with the Acropolis flirting with you, is an appealing one, then don’t miss the chance to visit one of these cocktail bars and order a refreshing mojito, or a shot of ouzo. The most famous are the “360 Cocktail bar”, “A for Athens”, “Citizen” and “Couleur Locale”. Of course, there are other bars, such as the “Drunk Sinatra” “Baba Au Rum”, “Six dogs” and “Noel” that are equally good and easily accessible, since they are also downtown. “Dybbuk”, “Rock n Roll” and “Akrotiri Boutique” are highly recommended for clubbing.

Good food is regarded as a sacred idea for every Greek, and this is why you should not miss the chance to eat some of the most fattening delicacies in the world: the famous moussaka — a potato and aubergine based dish, feta cheese, saganaki — a piece of fried cheese, tzatziki and, of course the very famous pita gyros. If you are a loyal fan of sweets, then don’t miss the chance to eat baklava, ravani, karydopita and galaktoboureko. Where to find them? In every restaurant in Athens. But, Psyri is the most well-known area.

If you wish to relax, then head to Plaka, a picturesque neighborhood downtown, full of small caféS overlooking the Acropolis, and wander around some of the most beautiful houses in Athens. Annafiotika is a particularly picturesque part, with cafés located alongside cobblestone streets, serving frappes and freddos, and of course plenty of ouzo to go with your mezes.

Plaka is considered by many to be the most beautiful part of Athens. The second is Thisseio. A close neighbor of the Acropolis, Thisseio is a perfect place to go for a walk and enjoy the Greek sun. In Thisseio you will find some traditional cafeterias, as well the chance to walk to Vrachakia, a place that is said to be the meeting place for Athenian policymakers. Head there at dusk if you want to see Athens’ breathtaking sunset. Your wanderings in Thisseio will lead you to both the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. Of course, you have to visit both of them.

Last but not least, if you feel that Athens is too tiring, you can take the underground metro and go to Piraeus, the famous port. From there, embark on one of the numerous ferries and enjoy some tiny and picturesque islands. Aegina, Hydra, Agkistri and Spetses are highly recommended, not only because of their proximity to Athens, but also because of the deep blue sea, which will make you wonder about the myths of the lost Atlantis and Poseidon.

As the saying goes, live your myth in Greece.

A Waltz to Remember


Photo Courtesy: Fatima Nanavati

Saturday, Feb. 13th marked the eve of Valentine’s Day but also marked the annual SAIS Europe Vienna Ball. So the myth goes, it’s typical for students to “marry off” and find love at the ball. Whether that happened this year will stay in Vienna, but the professors were eager to hear about the weekend’s events Monday morning after the attendees returned to campus. SAIS students dressed to the nines in ball gowns and tuxedos for the event.

It is an annual tradition for Europe campus students to attend the International Atomic Energy Association Ball held each year at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, but SAISers haven’t always trekked to Austria for the annual ball. Only in the past decade have SAIS Europe students regularly attended the IAEA event. Prior to 2006, SAIS’s annual ball had traditionally been held in a villa in the outskirts of Bologna. As the SAIS Europe class grew in size, planning a ball in Bologna proved difficult as finding a venue large enough to host the growing class proved increasingly limiting. An Austrian student back in 2006 came up with the idea of moving the ball to Vienna, a city known for its waltz.

Photo Courtesy: Fatima Nanavati

The earliest of the ball traditions was limited to the royal family and guests, but Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire made the traditional royal balls public for the common man – thus beginning the rich tradition of Viennese balls at the Hofburg Palace in 1773. The typical ball calendar begins around November and ends in late February. “There’s a ball season, but it’s in our carnival season. All the composers of waltz and the Strauss family are from Austria. The entire notion of the ball and the waltz comes from Austria and that is why we’re still the capital of balls – because of where it comes from,” remarked SAIS student Mira Uebleis. When asked about how prevalent the waltz dance still is today, Uebleis said, “It’s an Austrian tradition that at midnight on New Year’s Eve, we grab someone and waltz. The radio plays the Viennese waltz and everyone dances.”

Photo Courtesy: Fatima Nanavati

It is typical that every year the task of helping organize the annual ball is delegated to SAIS’s Austrian students.. Uebleis (Austrian) along with Lucas Perterer (Austrian) and Max Stadler were lead organizers for this year’s ball. They were responsible for contacting the ball organizers, purchasing tickets for the 175 SAIS students and faculty, coordinating transportation, and organizing a pre-ball speech at City Hall. On top of their prescribed responsibilities, the organizers also hosted extra events for attendees. Uebleis led the waltz dance tutorial; Perterer provided an endless list of sights to see in Vienna; and Stadler co-organized a one-day Energy, Resources, and Environment concentration career trek that took place the day before the ball.  

While much of the event was traditionally Austrian, the IAEA selects a different theme for each ball. 2016’s theme, reminiscent of Japanese culture, was evident from the opening ceremony until the closing. The ball opened with the traditional Vienna pipes and drums, the UN flag ceremony, and welcome address and quickly transitioned into a modern Japanese Taiko performance. Attendees were free to wander from room to room. Each corridor had its own theme ranging from silent disco to salsa.

Photo Courtesy: Fatima Nanavati

When asked to summarize the Vienna ball experience, Stadler said, “I think it’s a great tradition that needs to be continued in the coming years. It brings us all together and it all gives us a common memory that we will share in the years to come. If we meet in 5 or 10 years for our reunions, we will all say, ‘Do you remember that magical night in Vienna?’ That is something that nobody can take from us. That is special and we should continue that for all future classes.”