Ahead of the 2021 Seoul UN Peacekeeping Ministerial, meet Major Sungyeon Yi

By: Maya Kelly & Gideon Asare Sackitey

Major Sungyeon Yi pictured as a child and in her current position with UNMISS.

After learning about the appointment of Choi Kyung-hee as the first female South Korean Lieutenant Colonel to work with the UN Department of Peace Operations, Sungyeon Yi knew she wanted to be a peacekeeper.

A South Korean woman herself, Sungyeon grew up in a town near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in the Korean peninsula. Today, she is a Major in the South Korean army and is currently deployed with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

“I think it is natural to be motivated to join the military in those circumstances,” explains Major Sungyeon Yi, who has held four different UN peacekeeping positions since 2013 — two with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), one with the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), and now with UNMISS’ Intelligence Team.

Sungyeon Yi pictured as a child.

Despite being a veteran peacekeeper, Sungyeon still feels both nervous and excited whenever she lands at the airport to serve with a new mission. “Each mission has its own characteristics based on the terrain, diversity of conflict, and so on,” Sungyeon explains. “Working in international environments is challenging because you have to be attuned to varying degrees of threat levels.”

While starting a new job in an unknown environment takes patience and flexibility, Sungyeon says she has been excited about each new opportunity in the field. As a member of the UNMISS Intelligence Team, she works to evaluate threat levels that have defined many of her experiences as a peacekeeper. Her role includes researching past incidents to analyze and evaluate potential threats to upcoming rehabilitation projects that South Korean engineers will undertake in South Sudan.

Major Sungyeon Yi pictured working at her desk in Bor, South Sudan where she serves with UNMISS.

“It is important to get information from local communities and share that information with relevant in-mission partners. Given the ongoing COVID-19 [pandemic], it is challenging to communicate with communities as well as colleagues. We, therefore, heavily rely on technology for intra-mission conversations.”

Improving the technological capabilities of peacekeeping operations is at the heart of the Strategy for the Digital Transformation of UN Peacekeeping, launched by Secretary-General António Guterres last August. The Strategy seeks to harness the potential of digital technologies to better, and more effectively, deliver on peacekeeping mandates and enhance the safety and security of peacekeepers, now and in the future.

“Digital technologies can support United Nations peacekeeping efforts globally, including by ensuring the safety and security of peacekeepers,” said the UN chief. His vision for deeper internal capacities and exposure to new technologies is consistent with the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) agenda and A4P + priorities.

Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) is the core agenda of the Secretary-General for UN peacekeeping. In 2018, 154 Member States and four partner organizations endorsed the Declaration of Shared Commitments, a set of mutually-agreed principles and commitments to create peacekeeping operations fit for the future.

Action for Peacekeeping + (A4P+) is the implementation strategy for A4P for 2021–2023. Through its seven priority areas, A4P+ aims to accelerate progress on the implementation of the Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping.

Innovative, data-driven and technology-enabled peacekeeping has been mainstreamed across all seven A4P+ priorities and the Strategy for the Digital Transformation of UN Peacekeeping will be instrumental in achieving this goal.

Enhancing technology in peacekeeping is also one of the four main themes of the upcoming 2021 Seoul UN Peacekeeping Ministerial hosted by the Republic of Korea (RoK) on 7 and 8 December. A UN Peacekeeping Ministerial is an event in which countries from around the world come together to pledge their political support for peacekeeping operations and make concrete pledges to help close capability gaps in peacekeeping.

The 2021 Peacekeeping Ministerial offers a critical opportunity to further advance progress on UN peacekeeping’s technological capabilities through specific technology-based pledges. These pledges could offer new opportunities to enhance the safety and security of peacekeepers, improve situational awareness, strengthen field support, and facilitate mandate delivery.

In addition to the themes of enhancing technology in peacekeeping, strengthening medical capacity, and reducing the environmental footprint of peace operations, advancing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda is also a main focus. Though women are active agents of peace in armed conflict, their role as key players and agents of peace has been largely unrecognized.

Landmark Security Council Resolution 1325(2000) was the first resolution that recognized the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls and acknowledged the contributions women and girls make to conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peacebuilding. It acknowledged the importance of women’s equal and full participation, as active agents in peace and security.

Though progress has been made in the twenty-one years since the adoption of Resolution 1325, there is still significant work to be done. Today, women account for only slightly more than five percent of uniformed personnel in UN peacekeeping forces. The Ministerial is an opportunity for Member States to make pledges to support gender parity targets, women in leadership, unit pledges, and training.

In recent years, strong support for the WPS agenda has already been shown. Enhancing the number and role of women peacekeepers, among other goals, has contributed to clear gender targets and numerous commitments by Member States to increase women’s participation in peacekeeping, as well as institutional developments like the Elsie Initiative.

In addition to WPS-related pledges, the meaningful contributions of past and present women peacekeeper’s serve as inspiration for women and girls around the world to get involved in peace operations and peace processes.

LTC. Choi Kyung-hee (left) was the first female South Korean Lieutenant Colonel to serve with the Department of Peace Operations. Major General Kristin Lund of Norway (right) was the first-ever female Force Commander of a UN Peacekeeping mission, UNFICYP. (Photo 1: The Korea Times. Photo 2: UN Photo/UNFICYP)

Inspired by women peacekeepers before her, such as Lieutenant Colonel Choi Kyung-hee and the Former Force Commander at the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), Major General Kristin Lund, Sungyeon is now a role model herself for the next generation of UN peacekeepers. At 39, having served in four peacekeeping missions, Sungyeon encourages other women and girls to consider serving under the UN flag.

“​​Although it is unpredictable and challenging, because of the cultural diversities and characteristics of mission areas especially for female peacekeepers, serving as a UN peacekeeper counts as one of the worthiest and most meaningful experiences in my life.”

Major Sungyeon Yi pictured at her desk in Bor, South Sudan where she serves with UNMISS.



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