November 05, 2005

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Translating North Korean

A great story from today's SCMP on the difficulties of translation and negotiations between the Americans and North Koreas, in an interview with senior State Department translator Tong Kim. These kind of pieces are invaluable in their first hand accounts of back room negotiations. Story below the jump:

With the North Koreans, translation is a minefield

Without an understanding of concepts like private property, commercial transactions and choice, how do you explain to a communist about renting office space in the US? The question sounds like the start of a joke in search of a punchline, but this conundrum faced Tong Kim during his 27 years as a senior translator with the US State Department. He has been party to some of the most sensitive negotiations between the US and communist North Korea.

The difficulties of his job were highlighted when representatives of the two countries discussed opening liaison offices in each other's capital. One US negotiator was tickled at the idea of a North Korean real estate agent pounding the streets of Washington in search of office space.

"Not only is there no transaction between people or between entities in North Korea, but no brokering system by real estate brokers. So this kind of stuff doesn't translate very well," Mr Kim said. "As an interpreter, you are meant to say what is said without adding. But once you know yourself that `this guy will have no idea what I am talking about', you have to give them almost a lecture."

For more than a decade, Mr Kim attended almost every high-level US-North Korea meeting. Since his retirement, he has ruffled feathers in Seoul and Washington by using his intimate knowledge of diplomatic proceedings between the two states to question the viability of an agreement reached at multilateral talks two months ago over Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons programme.

Mr Kim has described the statement of principles hammered out after three previously fruitless rounds as a "linguistic minefield", full of "hidden meanings and obfuscations".

According to the statement - agreed by the US, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia - North Korea has committed itself to "abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes". But Mr Kim says the verb pogi hada (to abandon) used in the Korean translation "can be interpreted to mean leaving the weapons in place rather than dismantling them".

"There are a lot stronger words than [abandonment], like dismantlement or elimination or removal. Why did we agree to a less clear term, such as abandonment? Only because that's the term North Korea insisted on adopting and everyone gave in. I think that's a reflection of the reality the US is facing in the context of the dynamics of the six-party talks," he said.

However, Mr Kim's tenure at the State Department had its own share of controversy - most notably, at the US-North Korea talks in October 2002 that sparked the existing standoff. After that meeting, US negotiators claimed North Korea had admitted to an enriched-uranium programme. The claims were subsequently rejected by Pyongyang, which declared its officials had said only that North Korea was "entitled" to pursue a nuclear weapons programme.

In the ensuing controversy, attention focused on the work of the translators, including Mr Kim. The veteran translator still believes North Korean officials admitted to pursuing an illegal and covert nuclear programme. But he also has criticisms of James Kelly, lead US negotiator.

"If I had been Jim Kelly that day, I would have said [to the North Koreans]: `This is what I heard. Is this what you meant?' This would have given the North Koreans a second chance to confirm. We didn't have it. The result: controversy."

The first of Mr Kim's numerous visits to North Korea were hardly less memorable. In 1991, he accompanied a delegation led by retired general Richard Stilwell. Even before the talks began, lead North Korean delegate Kim Young-nam, then foreign minister, almost stopped the meeting in its tracks with a reference to South Korea's long history of demonising the North Koreans.

"We just walked in. It was a big, big conference room with a wide table. There was Kim Young-nam. He was sitting there along with his aides. Then there was Stillwell and his colleagues, and me ... and Kim Young-nam began speaking to us, and his first sentence was: `Do you see horns on my head? Are my eyes red?"

According to Tong Kim, the North Korean leadership were sending a very clear message. "Later, what I thought he was saying was: `You don't understand about us. You're wrong about us, you've got to learn about us'."

posted by Simon on 11.05.05 at 10:24 AM in the Koreas category.


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When I was in the hotel in Pyongyang a month ago and was a bit buzzed and exhausted having not slept more than 3 hours each day for the past four days I slipped up and said to one of the guides "So who, other than Kim Jung-Il is the richest person in North Korea?" I laugh now cause it was beyond moronic. But at the time I can say there were few language barriers to the grave look I got from my guide as he told me "Never ask that question again".

posted by: austin on 11.05.05 at 04:30 PM [permalink]

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