Interpreting the Korean Kaleidoscope

The recent North Korean-American Summit sent shock waves throughout the East Asia, potentially causing a complete realignment of the balance of power in the region.

In a triumph of diplomacy and showmanship, President Donald J. Trump was the first U.S. President to tame the North Korean threat!  On June 12, 2018 he joined North Korea’s Chairman, Kim Jung Un, in an historic summit in Singapore.

The Korean peace process began with the heart-warming union of the North and South Korean teams during the Winter Olympic Games in February 2018.  In an unexpected gesture of peace, North and South Korea suspended hostilities and showed a united front on the greatest of international battlefields.

South Korean Win

From the South Korean perspective, this gesture toward re-unification has been long awaited.  Improved relations with North Korea was a campaign promise of the democratically elected South Korean President, Moon Jae-in.  He promised to end the war, and renew familial and business ties with North Korea.

Perhaps inspired by the reunification of Germany three decades ago, this great gesture gives hope to other intransigent conflicts around the world.

North Korean Win

For North Korea, the end of the Korean War could allow huge economic progress.  Looking around at the tremendous economic and technological growth throughout Asia, how can North Korea NOT say “I want some of that!”

In addition, being recognized by the United States as a legitimate sovereign state is a huge boost to North Korea and its chairman in the international arena.

Third in a cruel dynasty of North Korean leaders, Kim Jung Un is the youngest North Korean Chairman ever, and one of the youngest leaders throughout the world. Tolerating no dissent in his ruling party(or family), he has shown cunning and audacity in order to bring his country into the next century.  Since ascending to the North Korean chairmanship in 2011, he has worked to consolidate his power and establish himself as the undisputed Great Leader in his own right.

He adeptly manages relationships with the big players around him: China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States, emerging to take his place on the international stage.

Summit Conference Interpreters

If you looked closely, you could see various interpreters hovering around the summit and other interactions between the United States and the Koreans.  How dedicated they are, not only constantly following their respective leaders, but then putting in overtime, translating, and prepping the material to be covered in the very next meeting.

Only the closest to the center of the encounter understood the true value and talents of the interpreters.  Forbidden from appearing in photos or on screen, the very success of the summit rested on the graceful and powerful professionalism of the U.S. Korean interpreters!

During the summit, Korean simultaneous interpreting was occurring not just for the two heads of state, but at all levels.  Behind the scenes, every document had to be translated by Korean translators from Korean into English and English into Korean, on the spot!

Korean document translation has been essential for communication between Koreans and Americans working on everything related to the summit and denuclearization, before, during, and after the summit.

In the coming year and into 2019, there will be squads of conference interpreters working to iron out a final agreement between the parties regarding denuclearization.  Typically, a large group working together who do not speak the same language would need interpreting equipment, such as an interpreting booth and interpreter consoles for the conference interpreters and tabletop microphones and headsets and receivers for all the participants.

In a presentation to a large group involving many languages, an interpreting booth is used to avoid distracting the principle speakers and participants and to make communication seamless.  A separate interpreter is needed for Korean to English interpreting and for English to Korean interpreting at the highest levels, but at the mid-level and working level, Korean simultaneous interpreters work in both directions.

Balance of Power

Obviously, the two great winners in the Korean peace process are North and South Korea, but China also stands to gain much as the United States begins to extricate itself from the Korean Peninsula.  For years, South Korea and the United States have been negotiating the transfer of military leadership to South Korea in case of military conflict.  Very recently this transfer of power to Korea slowed due to the high-hostility rhetoric between the United States and North Korea, but the process continues.

With the United States reducing its influence in the region, China can relax more in its efforts to gain hegemony in the South China Sea and other parts of East Asia.

Sense of Abandonment

Many parties to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are backed up by the United States.  Some of them, such as Japan and the Philippines, are likely to sense a feeling of loss or abandonment.

If the United States withdraws from the region, that expands China’s role.  But Japan could fill the gap in military leadership opposed to China in East Asia.

Japan seems poised to try to fill the vacuum left by the United States.  President Abe has expressed his intention to revise the Japanese constitution to allow more than just a defensive military force, to potentially include Japanese offensive forces as well.

Going Off Script

It is interesting that former client states like South and North Korea took the reins of their destiny and then seemingly as an afterthought, conferred with their patron states, the United States and China. 

This negotiation began with the 2018 Winter Olympics, between the two Koreas.  South Korea, with the aid of Korean translation services, called for the aid of President Trump to leverage the hoped for reconciliation with Kim Jong Un.

Next Steps

During the summit, President Trump showed Chairman Kim a promotional video that emphasized the potential of a peaceful relationship between the two countries. He suggested to Kim Jong Un that it would be more profitable to build resorts than bombing ranges on North Korean beaches. Later, Trump said “I didn’t have to show it because I believe he really wants to do this.”

Said Trump of Kim on denuclearization: “He may want it more than me.”  In addition to a signed intent to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, Trump said that he also obtained a promise to repatriate U.S. soldiers’ remains from North Korea.

We do not know what the future holds, but the recent summit reminds us that anything could happen!