Trump-Kim summit: The 2 most important people in the room, besides Kim and Trump

Interpreter Lee Yun Hyang sitting next to US President Donald Trump during the summit meeting with Kim Jong Un.
Interpreter Lee Yun Hyang sitting next to US President Donald Trump during the summit meeting with Kim Jong Un.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Two people were the key to the historic United States-North Korea summit on Tuesday (June 12). Two, that is, apart from US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The pair have attracted much attention as the only people privy to the full content of the private meeting between the two leaders: Their translators.


It could only have been a nerve-wrecking job.

Interpreting at the diplomatic level can be the difference between finding peace or causing an international incident. Every word uttered by a world leader had to be interpreted and relayed to the other with exacting context and nuance.

We look at the credentials of the two language experts:

Mr Trump's interpreter: Dr Lee Yun Hyang, 61

Dr Lee's always wanted to use her voice, but not necessarily as an interpreter.

She originally majored in vocal music for her undergraduate study at Yonsei University in Seoul, after having spent three years at an international school in Iran during middle school. She got her start in interpretation work thanks to a friend, according to the Korea Times.


She also tried her hand at becoming a television producer, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported, but her application was rejected because she was a woman. That was a clarifying moment for Lee, who then decided to leave the country.

"I cannot raise my daughter in a country that discriminates against women," she told Chosun Ilbo.

Lee ended up in California in 1996 at the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education, where she taught in the translation and interpretation programme for eight years. From there, she joined the State Department for couple of years, before returning to South Korea and working as a professor at the elite Ewha Womans University in Seoul. She returned to the State Department in 2009.

She has interpreted for former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush as well as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was also the South Korean interpreter at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and at the 2008 Games in Beijing.

Her drive to succeed in a world dominated by men has paid off: Dr Lee was the only woman in the room during President Trump and Mr Kim's historic summit at the Capella Singapore hotel on Sentosa.

Mr Kim's interpreter: Mr Kim Ju Song


Not as much is known about Mr Kim Ju Song. He was at the White House earlier this month when General Kim Yong Chol, Mr Kim Jong Un's right-hand man, met with Trump, so he got a jump start in figuring out how to decode Mr Trump's speaking style.

He also interpreted for Kim Yong Chol when he went to South Korea for the Winter Olympics back in February, Chosun Ilbo reported.
Kim Ju Song reportedly has a high level of expertise in English.

"Even though he was not trained as a professional translator, he was picked up because of his outstanding English proficiency," a defector who used to be a North Korean diplomat told Chosun Ilbo.