When Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met privately today (June 12) in Singapore, they were not alone in the room. Accompanying them were their interpreters.
On the American side, that was Lee Yun-hyang, a long-time US State Department employee who has been working full time for the US government since 2009, according to Korean media reports. Having interpreted for George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, Lee also interpreted for Trump during his meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in in May, and when the president greeted the American citizens who had been released from North Korea last month.
On the North Korean side, Kim’s interpreter was Kim Ju Song, who had previously encountered Trump when he accompanied North Korean general Kim Yong Chol on his visit to the US last month to meet with the US president in preparation for today’s summit.
Lee, 61, wasn’t always destined for the interpreting spotlight. In a 2010 interview (link in Korean) with South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Lee said that she had originally wanted to be television producer in South Korea after she graduated from university, but her application was denied because she was a woman. After becoming a housewife, she decided at 33 to enroll in a translation master’s program at a Korean university. The oldest student in her class, she recalled feeling “excited” that she could escape her life as a housewife. But she also remembered worrying that people might make fun of her husband because his wife chose to work rather than stay at home.
In 1996, she began teaching at the Monterey Institute’s translation program in California. She tried to return to Korea a few years later to enroll her daughter and son in a high school there, but was told that her children were not eligible because they had studied overseas due to their mother’s profession. She said she decided to return with her children to the US because she thought it was “hard to raise a daughter in a country where there is so much discrimination against women.”
She returned to teach at Ewha Womans University in Seoul in 2004, before returning to Washington to work full time at the State Department five years later.
Following the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the two sides moved on to an expanded bilateral meeting—which included US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol—where Lee was the only woman in the room.