U.S. senior North Korea expert receives Chairman of Joint Chiefs highest civilian honor
By Victoria Piccoli, Office of Strategic Communications
The Korean peninsula and surrounding region have experienced waves of heightened conflict since the Korean War ended in 1953.
Over the past five years, there has been cycles of high-stakes provocations, followed by diplomacy and dialogue. Throughout this period, U.S. policy and posture toward North Korea heavily depended on expertise across the intelligence, diplomatic, policy, and defense domains.
Sydney Seiler, now National Intelligence Officer for North Korea at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was one of the senior experts who lent his expertise, specifically volunteering to support U.S. Forces Korea as the Command’s Senior Expert for North Korea from April 2016 to Aug. 2020.
As a result of his service, Seiler received the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award on Feb. 10 during a socially distanced ceremony.
“This was one of the most important places for a senior analyst to be inside or outside of a combat zone,” said Lt. Gen. Jeff Kruse, the Director’s Advisor for Military Affairs. “There were multiple nuclear tests, missile launches, and meetings between heads of state; it was a unique time for the nation. Sydney volunteered to go into this environment and his work over the last four years demonstrated his dedication to mission, and expertise on North Korea. In a time of unprecedented complexity he brought unprecedented clarity.”
Seiler has dedicated his career and life to being a senior expert on North Korea.
His career in the Intelligence Community started almost 40 years ago in 1981 when Seiler enlisted into the U.S. Army as a cryptologic linguist.
Seiler held multiple assignments in both signals intelligence and human intelligence operations in the Army, developing a passion for the North Korean mission set and intelligence profession, he said.
“Working across intelligence disciplines and various aspects of the North Korean target, I was blessed with a series of intellectually engaging mission critical assignments and surrounded by expert mentors who always encouraged me to pursue broader and more challenging assignments,” said Seiler. “It was a great way to begin in the intelligence profession.”
After 12 years, Seiler joined the Central Intelligence Agency and continued to broaden his experience, working as a media analyst and manager in the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, now called the Open Source Enterprise, tasked with the collection and analysis of freely available intelligence. He went on to serve as a manager in the Directorate of Operations and an all-source analyst in the Directorate of Intelligence.
“If you look at my career, I moved from career field to career field more often than most, but this always allowed me to focus on the North Korea mission set,” said Seiler. “I have had the opportunity to do the one thing I love, and was able to craft my career to focus on understanding North Korea.”
In 2006, Seiler joined the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where he helped stand up the Office of the North Korea Mission Manager, playing a key role in establishing from scratch mission management doctrine and practices in the new field now applied globally through National Intelligence Managers.” Seiler took two IC civilian joint duty assignments to serve as the Director for Korea on the National Security Council, and at the Department of State as the Special Envoy to Six-Party Talks.
The IC civilian joint duty program allows officers across the community to serve in a variety of positions outside of their home organization.
“When I returned to ODNI from the State Department, I was looking for how to best contribute to the mission and national security,” said Seiler. “The Commander of U.S. Forces Korea expressed interest in having me come out as the command’s Senior Analyst. Little did I know that this would put me on the front lines during one of the most demanding periods of the North Korea target, 2016-2019.”
Seiler landed in Seoul to serve as U.S. Forces Korea senior analyst and senior Defense Intelligence Expert for North Korea, serving as the principal advisor and senior expert on Korean Peninsula security issues to the U.S. Forces Korea commander and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Enterprise.
“I spent four and a half years in a command on the front lines dealing with the nation’s paramount security challenge and most dangerous adversary in North Korea,” said Seiler. “It was a period marked by uncertainty and tension as North Korea’s successive missile launches and nuclear tests drove tension on the peninsula to some of the highest levels since the Armistice halting the Korean War was concluded in 1953.”
Relying on his past experience – which included 12 previous years serving in South Korea – Seiler was able to contextualize developments based on over three decades of watching North Korea.
Seiler provided advice and clarity on developments to U.S. Forces Korea, other interested commands such as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense leadership, and to senior analysts across the community, he said.
“Sydney Seiler brought deep insight, experience, and professionalism to U.S. Forces Korea during an extraordinary time,” said Kruse. “He provided counsel and subject matter expertise to the U.S. Forces Korea commander and to senior leaders throughout numerous North Korean provocations.”
Seiler oversaw the delivery of thousands of intelligence products from the command and across the IC.
“On the North Korea issue, U.S. Forces Korea has a unique position and a diverse intelligence target and mission ranging from the tactical to strategic level,” said Seiler. “Serving as the command’s senior analyst allowed me to learn from analysts with deep expertise serving in the Defense Intelligence Enterprise, while also allow me to share my decades of experience having worked North Korea within the Washington, D.C.-based national-level community. Having an opportunity to help train the next generation of analysts was the most rewarding experience of my tour in Korea.”
Seiler is one of a few civilians to receive the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award, said Kruse.
The award is granted to federal government civilian employees of the Joint Staff, combatant commands, and joint organizations reporting to or through the Chairman for service that exceeds scope of contributions and service.
“Throughout my career, I was fortunate to pursue opportunities and assignments to focus on North Korea,” said Seiler. “With this latest assignment, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to support our nation’s security from intelligence, policy, negotiations, and now warfighter positions.”