2003 Emerging Leaders

Alyson McFarland

Played a key role in negotiations between the U.S., Chinese and South Korean governments that eventually allowed three North Korean asylum seekers to find freedom in South Korea.

The Korean peninsula is the only remaining flashpoint of the Cold War. Fifty years after an armistice stopped the fighting between the Chinese-backed north and the American-backed south, the region still exists in an uneasy peace. During the summer of 2002, a 28-year old State Department program development officer played a key role in resolving a tense diplomatic crisis involving all four nations.

When three North Korean refugees jumped over the wall of the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang, China, seeking escape from their troubled nation, it captured worldwide attention and touched off several days of negotiations among the highest levels of the U.S., Chinese and South Korean governments. Alyson McFarland was instrumental in resolving the incident as one of the consulate’s only Korean-speakers and an expert in Chinese-North Korean affairs. She was among the first to interview the refugees and later supported the diplomatic negotiations that eventually allowed the three North Korean men to fly to freedom in South Korea. The U.S. Consul General in Shenyang called her an “invaluable asset to the Consulate” during the crisis.

McFarland was a valuable asset in other ways as well. She took photographs of the Chinese-North Korean border region that were lauded by the State Department’s Office of Intelligence and Research, and served as a member of the U.S. delegation to a high-level United Nations discussion on arms control and disarmament issues. Possessing exceptional knowledge of nuclear arms control matters, McFarland managed a broad and difficult portfolio of responsibilities and played a critical role in coordinating two U.S.-sponsored resolutions.

As a child, McFarland dreamed of becoming a U.S. diplomat. She fulfilled that desire to work in public service when she became a State Department employee at age 26. Not only is she a dedicated public servant, she is also one of the “best and brightest.” McFarland earned her master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, where she was accepted as a fellow in a congressionally-sponsored program designed to develop future leaders in Asia-Pacific affairs. She later joined the federal government as a Presidential Management Intern, an elite program that attracts the nation’s top scholars to federal service and develops them as future government leaders.

In just three years as a public servant, this 28-year old has already made her mark. “Alyson is a take-charge person who wants to demonstrate her abilities in a way that contributes to the good of the nation,” said a former supervisor. Alyson McFarland heard the call to public service—and the nation is stronger because she answered.

This medalist was the recipient of the Call to Service Medal, which was updated to the Emerging Leaders Medal in 2020.