How I Got Here: Sue Mi Terry

A conversation with
Sue Mi Terry

Published
Dec 13, 2019

Dec 13, 2019 • by Sue Mi Terry

Sue Mi Terry

  • Senior Analyst on Korean Issues, CIA
  • Director for Korea, Japan, and Oceanic Affairs, National Security Council
  • Deputy National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, National Intelligence Council
  • Senior Fellow for Korea, Center for Strategic and International Studies

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I grew up in [South] Korea, doing music and art like many Korean kids. So an artist. My birth father passed away very young, when I was nine. I’m an only child. My mother was a book publisher, one of the very few women in that society at that time to have a real career. But she decided to leave to give me a better life. In Korea then, anything abnormal was a negative. You didn’t have interracial marriages. You didn’t have single parents. You had to follow certain norms or become an outcast. It was difficult for us, and she ultimately decided to leave, and we moved to Hawaii. My mother remarried, and I became a naturalized citizen. That’s where my last name, Terry, comes from, my stepfather. He was a colonel in the U.S. Army, and eventually, we moved to northern Virginia because of his job. Even when I came to the United States, though, I continued to paint throughout high school.

So what happened to art?

By college, I realized I was never going to make it as an artist, so I needed to do something else. I had always been interested in politics. I volunteered for Chuck Robb’s campaign in northern Virginia in high school. I wrote an essay called “Why Everyone Should Vote,” and it won some award. I didn’t want to go to medical school, and law school was the other typical option. So at NYU, I decided to do political science as preparation for law school, and I double-majored in political science and East Asian studies.

My first job was working in the New York City Mayor’s Office for Asian Affairs, under David Dinkins. It started as an internship and when [Rudy] Giuliani came in, I lost the job. I was in my early 20s, living in New York with a roommate, without a job. I didn’t want to wait tables, so I went through the classified ads in The New York Times and took a job in the fashion industry as an assistant to a big shot, basically Anne Hathaway’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.

I did that for two years. The fashion industry is nuts, absolutely nuts. But the money was good, and it was a glamorous job. I went to fashion shows, got clothes, had my hair and nails done. But after two years, I said to myself, “This is taking me in the wrong direction; it’s not what I want to do.” So I quit. I had a very traumatic goodbye, just like Hathaway’s character with Meryl Streep’s.

What came after fashion?

I decided to go back to graduate school and applied to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts. My initial plan was to get an M.A. and a joint degree with a law school. It was clear that China was the future, so I focused on Chinese foreign policy. Over time, I liked what I was doing and realized that I didn’t know a single lawyer who was truly happy. So I dropped the plans for law school and continued on after my master’s to get a Ph.D.

Then my dissertation advisers gave me some good advice. They said, “Everybody’s doing China, and you have no competitive edge there. But not many people do Korea. You’re Korean American; you speak the language, know the culture. Korea’s important, not only because of the security problems of the North but also because of the economic potential of the South. And if there’s ever unification, nobody knows what that would mean. Korea is what you should study.” And they were right, so I did. You can’t really do a dissertation on North Korea—there just aren’t enough sources—so they encouraged me to do something on modern South Korean history and foreign policy, and I ended up writing on leadership during the Park Chung-hee era. It’s important to have good mentors.

Then what?

I wanted to be an academic and to live in New York. But there are very few jobs like that, and I realized I might have to go be a professor someplace else first, which I didn’t want to do. That was when I went to a campus recruiting session with the CIA. I’m a curious person; I’ll try anything once. So I went to the orientation, and the guy jokingly says, “Sue, do you want to know what Kim Jong Il eats for breakfast? We know everything.” That hooked me. By the end of graduate school, my choice was go to northern Virginia and join the agency or be a junior professor someplace else. And northern Virginia was only a train ride from New York. I hated the polygraph test and almost didn’t take the job, but in the end, I did.

What was the CIA like?

It wasn’t as sexy as I expected. It’s not a lot of James Bonds walking around. It’s much more boring than people realize. It’s like working at a large think tank or being in academia. It’s filled with normal, hard-working people. There were a lot of pluses I really enjoyed. For example, I spent years researching and writing my dissertation, and maybe four people read it. You write the President’s Daily Brief—it goes right to the top. You get feedback the next day: “President Bush said this.” “The secretary of state said that.” Or the vice president presses you with a tough follow-up question. I thought that was really cool.

You get six months of training, and then you’re it; you’re in charge of your account—politics, economics, leadership, whatever. I remember the first briefing I ever had to do, for the Defense Policy Board. I had to say to myself, “Well, you’re the expert now.” When you submit something for the PDB, though, it’s not like it’s Sue Terry’s piece. You might have authored it, but by the time it goes through the ringer, it’s an agency piece, with nobody’s name on it. The editing process is insane. If I’m writing a North Korea piece and I mention the word “China,” it has to go to the regional analysts in the China group, and they have to approve it. If I say “nuclear,” it has to go to the functional experts for them to approve. And then the piece goes to the team chief and many other editors.

Is the bureaucracy necessary or excessive?

Both. It’s necessary because including all the experts brings rigor to the analysis. This is going to the president, the National Security Council, where people are making important decisions. Every word has to be correct. So there are a lot of checks to make sure that some junior person is not going off and creating a crisis by mistake. But it’s also excessive, because you don’t need nearly as much of it as they actually have. By the time you’re done, it doesn’t look anything like when you started. But that’s the process. Policymakers don’t always understand what the analysts went through to produce their papers, how much people had to work and fight to make it perfect.

Is it true you hold the record for the number of items by an analyst gotten into the PDB?

I did have a high number, but it’s not because of something great about me—it was because of my account. I started a couple of days before 9/11. In his State of the Union address the next February, President Bush called North Korea part of the “axis of evil,” and then in October, we found out that North Korea was pursuing a uranium enrichment program covertly on the sidelines despite the 1994 Agreed Framework. And then there were repeated nuclear crises. If I had been covering Norway, I could have been the greatest analyst ever but might not have produced a single one.

Did you ever brief the president yourself?

Yes. They’re like movie stars, so you don’t really expect to meet them in person. It’s an interesting, cool experience. President Bush is a very fun, likable guy. He has a great sense of humor, a self-deprecating, slap-your-back kind of thing. He put you at ease. President Obama was much more serious. I found him more unnerving, because he would look at you very seriously and not say much, just nod. I felt nervous, like I was talking too much.

You went from being an academic social scientist to being an intelligence analyst with the highest possible security clearances. How did the world look different?

It’s really, really hard to get at truth. In political science, there are all these models, and you’re supposed to have strong theses. My experience at the CIA taught me that you just don’t know. There are no easy answers at all. Every morning I would come in and turn on the computer and find, say, 10,000 pieces of information tailored for my account, North Korea. Signals intelligence. Diplomatic cables from State. Reporting from the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon. Satellite imagery—North Korea is the most heavily imaged place on the planet. Translations and analyses of every North Korean statement. You have all of that, and yet you still can’t answer the most difficult questions. It’s so frustrating! The world is too complex to model.

You were the most knowledgeable person in the entire U.S. government, perhaps the entire outside world, on your account. Did that enable you to predict the future accurately? Was your analysis much better than other people’s because you knew all this classified information?

No. [laughter]

Any better at all?

No.

So what’s the value of all the classified information?

I knew what I didn’t know. That was the gift it gave me. What I used to love, and the one thing I really miss, was going to conferences and listening to all these people talking and knowing that they were wrong or didn’t have the answers. I knew they didn’t know what they were talking about, because we simply didn’t have the information to support whatever they were saying. Now, I don’t know what I don’t know. I miss that confidence.

Then you went to the NSC. What was it like switching roles, moving from intelligence analyst to policymaker?

I liked it better, on balance. You get frustrated on the intelligence side after a while, because you do all these analyses and it doesn’t necessarily make a difference on policy. Now, I was in a position where I could do something about it. But in that role, you’re more action-oriented and have no time to think.

What does the NSC staff do?

The NSC staff’s job is to understand the president’s direction in foreign policy and try to implement it, making sure that all government agencies are working together effectively to get things done. You’re coordinating the Pentagon, the State Department, the Treasury, everybody.

What was a normal day like?

Drinking out of fire hoses. There’s always some emergency. It could be something small, but even small things can be minor diplomatic crises. Managing allies and relationships is difficult. Sometimes there’s a genuine crisis; sometimes there’s not. But it always feels like a crisis at the moment.

Did you have to read the same amount at the NSC that you had to at the agency?

It was crazy. You have no time to be sitting around reading anything. You have no time to do any kind of analysis, because you are running around meeting with your counterparts in different agencies and countries and constantly managing crises. You read analysis instead of raw reporting.

So what you were reading at the CIA was primary sources, and what you were reading at the NSC was secondary sources?

Exactly.

Where did you find the confidence to recommend one course of action over another if, as you said, you didn’t know anything?

Because after doing it for decades, I knew more than others.

After leaving the NSC, you went to the National Intelligence Council. What is that?

There are 17 intelligence agencies in the U.S. government. People don’t appreciate that. Not just CIA. FBI, NSA, INR, DIA. The army, the navy, the air force, each has its own intelligence agency. The Energy Department has one. Treasury has one. And they don’t always agree. Take the question of whether North Korea is pursuing certain kinds of uranium enrichment. Let’s say, for example, that INR, from State, says, “We don’t have enough information to make a decision.” DIA might be more aggressive: “Based on this and that, we think they are going full force ahead.” CIA might be somewhere in the middle. Policymakers don’t find this helpful. So they set up the National Intelligence Council to oversee the entire intelligence community and come up with a single assessment. For a National Intelligence Estimate, 17 people from 17 agencies sit down at a big conference table and review the document word by word—do we agree to this? do we agree to that?—so we can produce a single assessment from everybody. The criticism of that process is that by the time we’ve agreed, it says little more than “North Korea has a nuclear program, and it’s threatening.” It’s still helpful, as a bottom-line assessment about what the intelligence community as a whole thinks.

Were there times when you were proud of calling things accurately or embarrassed at getting them wrong?

We were better about things like nuclear tests, because your analysis was supported by imagery. Calls about open societies are often wrong. We didn’t predict Kim Dae-jung’s or Roh Moo-hyun’s win. Predicting elections is very difficult.

What did you do after the NIC?

I came to the Council on Foreign Relations as an intelligence fellow, another detailed assignment.

What was it like being at a think tank?

I really liked it. Think tanks are the bridge between academia and the policy community. In academia, your research often focuses on esoteric issues, and you don’t necessarily think about policy recommendations at all. At a think tank, you study your subject and are also expected to think about the implications of your research for actual policy-making. You’re more practical than scholars, but more objective than people inside government, who have no time or energy to do their own research and think.

When did you leave the CIA?

I had a lot of great rotations. Too many. So I had to go back to the CIA, and I knew that I would go back to doing the same things I had done when I started out at the agency. But I had worked outside too long, had seen too much of the world to go back and do what I had done initially. So I left. That said, I still highly recommend the intelligence community to any young person starting out. It’s a great place to begin your career, because you can learn your issue and become an expert. Then you can either stay and continue to serve or go somewhere else and use the expertise.

How did your experience differ from those of your male peers?

I had fewer role models at the highest levels. I’m so glad to see Gina [Haspel] as director, the first woman director of the CIA! Often, I was the only woman in the room. And an Asian woman at that. The Koreans didn’t know what to do with me at first. “Are you a translator? Why don’t you sit over there?” “No. I’m Sue Terry from CIA.” I had some trouble being taken seriously. Being in a continual male environment is a challenge: Do you speak up or not? Also, when I started out, I looked very young. I looked like an intern. Now that I’m older, I like looking young. But when I was younger, I didn’t.

How did you deal with all of that?

I just persevered through it. You find courage somewhere. Initially, I tried to be nice. All the guys sit at this big round table in meetings. I’d say to myself, “I’ll just sit in the second row.” I wouldn’t talk too much; I didn’t want to be too aggressive and not be liked. But you learn fast that’s not going to work. You just have to show up. You just have to do it. Sit at that table. Sit next to your principal. Speak up, and if you get criticized, the hell with it.

What are you most proud of in your career, and what are your greatest regrets?

I’m most proud of my analyses and pushing back when I had to. There were times we got pushback from the higher-ups. Day one, they said your job is to tell truth to power, but it gets harder and harder to do that. Staying true to your principles is sometimes difficult. But if you can, you can be proud of it.

I don’t have too many regrets, only because I feel like I’ve taken every opportunity that was given to me. I usually regret things that I have not done.

Any advice for those starting out?

Not everything can be planned out perfectly, so you need to stay flexible. Pursue a passion. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I think if you pursue something that you’re passionate about, you’re going to end up fine, because you are interested in what you’re doing. And I know it sounds like another cliché, but be persistent. You’re going to have ups and downs; just persist through it all. Finally, one thing that has always worked for me is I don’t say no. I always say yes, and worry later. Whatever challenge it is, I think, “Oh, shit, maybe I shouldn’t have said yes. How am I going to do this?” But you realize it’s not that bad, and it always has a way of working out. And even if you fail, it’s just a moment, a little nothing compared to the long timeline of your life. So say yes a lot.

This interview has been edited and condensed.