Smith Student Interprets for North Korean Defector

Photo courtesy of Joo Eun Lee '17 | Joo Eun Lee ’17 interpreted for North Korean defector Lee Young Guk at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

Photo courtesy of Joo Eun Lee ’17 | Joo Eun Lee ’17 interpreted for North Korean defector Lee Young Guk at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.


Hira Humayun ’17
Features Editor 

While abroad, Smithies often find excitement, but Joo Eun Lee ’17 participated in a more important enterprise than she expected when she was asked to act as an interpreter for North Korean defector and former bodyguard of Kim Jong Il, Lee Young Guk. Guk was captured while trying to escape North Korea and was detained in a political prisoner camp before escaping to South Korea. On Feb. 22, he spoke at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in Geneva, Switzerland, where Lee was called to translate for him.

How did you end up interpreting for the former bodyguard of Kim Jong Il?

My friend who studied abroad in Geneva last semester and worked at the UN Watch introduced me to Leon Saltiel, who sent me an email asking me to volunteer as an interpreter for Mr. Lee Young Guk.

What was your week with Lee like?

On Sunday night, I had to pick Mr. Lee up and bring him to dinner where Geneva Summit speakers and UN Watch personnel and diplomats were. Originally his office sent me the speech he was to make at the summit, but it wasn’t the speech he originally wrote himself, so on Sunday night he gave me a new hand-written speech, which I typed and translated from Korean to English. On Monday morning, I picked him up from his hotel and brought him to the UN Watch office. Pictures were taken of him, and then we went to the opening ceremony of the Geneva Summit at the UN building. I had to interpret and tell him what was going on and who was speaking. I helped him through the summit. That day there was a private session with foreign diplomats from the permanent missions of different countries where he spoke, introducing himself and why he was here and what he would talk about on the last day of the summit. I translated for him during this meeting as well. That night there was a cocktail dinner with VIPs and speakers, which I also attended. On Tuesday, the final day of the summit, we had more than 10 media interviews with journalists from countries like Germany, France and Switzerland. Each interview was about 30 to 40 minutes long. Finally, Mr. Lee made his speech while I sat in the interpretation booth on the second floor of the assembly hall. After his speech, there was one more interview. We then had a dinner with a Korean diplomat.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

There were a few tough moments. Firstly, I underestimated the amount of work it would be; I didn’t know beforehand how many media interviews I would have to take part in. Secondly, since it was my first time working as an interpreter I was very inexperienced and very nervous but I think I did a good job during the interview sessions. [Thirdly], during his speech on the final day, when I was in the booth ready to translate, the microphone wasn’t working, but Mr. Lee had already started speaking. Since there was no English translation through the earpiece, people were staring at the booth where I was sitting. I tried to use another microphone, but it wasn’t working either. Eventually it started working, but I was still a little shaken up. Also, he talked about things that weren’t part of the speech he gave me, so I had to spontaneously translate his sentences, some of which I couldn’t translate due to the timing. During the session I wanted to leave the summit at some points because I was so nervous.

Q. What was Mr. Lee like as a person and what kind of information did you learn about him and the Kim family?

I had the opportunity to learn about the Kim family’s private lives, which were very luxurious and about their personalities. I learned how Kim Jong Un, the current North Korean leader, is more violent than his father. I learned about the tough life Mr. Lee led and the reality of human rights conditions in the political prisoner camps where Mr. Lee was detained for about four and a half years after his failed attempt to escape North Korea. Mr. Lee was very nice, but due to his career as a bodyguard and his experiences as a political prisoner, his manner of speaking was fairly assertive. Since I was the only other Korean at the summit, I spent a lot of time with him [and] listened to his personal experiences in North Korea and South Korea. I expected that he would be cold and standoffish, but he was friendly and talkative.

Q. What was the most rewarding part of this experience?

I had the opportunity to meet and work with the former bodyguard who experienced a high rank in the North Korean political system. Kim Jong Il trusted his bodyguards more than government officials because the bodyguards are the only people close enough to Kim Jong Il to know the much hidden realities of his life. It was a great honor to meet someone who not only experienced the highest rank but was also subject to the worst torture but had the courage to speak out about it in a public forum. I was really inspired by him.

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