Between Two Presidents

Tae Hyeon Kim working as a translator

Tae Hyeon (Ryan) Kim ’19 serves as interpreter during Trump South Korea visit

An undergraduate student in Policy Analysis and Management had an unforgettable opportunity last year in November: to serve as an interpreter between U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-In.

After finishing his junior year at Cornell, Tae Hyeon (Ryan) Kim PAM ’19 went back home to South Korea to serve a 21-month stint of mandatory military service. Highly proficient in both the Korean and English languages, he became a bilingual interpreter at the ROK-US Combined Forces Command, Seoul.

In early November 2017, President Trump visited South Korea as part of his Northeast Asia Tour, becoming the first president in three decades to make an official state visit to the country.

Trump’s first stop was to visit and share a meal with selected soldiers at Camp Humphreys, a newly-built base not far from Seoul, the nation’s capital. President Moon Jae-In arranged to greet President Trump there as a warm welcome.

“A few days before this meeting, I was notified by my superior officer that I was selected to be seated in between President Moon and Trump and interpret their conversation between English and Korean,” Kim said. “The seats were assigned based on the recommendations and selection process of both R.O.K. and U.S. stakeholders. The fact that I attend Cornell University and major in Policy Analysis and Management probably was the reason for which I was selected.”

Kim said he initially felt little pressure in this role as military protocol personnel briefed him, expecting only casual conversation between the presidents and a selection of American and South Korean troops. However, after only moments of greeting soldiers, Kim said Moon and Trump began discussing various complex topics.

“Although it was quite challenging to accurately convey the heavy topics, it was certainly an unforgettable experience to interpret their conversation and to witness the unprecedented meeting of the two presidents whom I have admired only through video footage or articles,” Kim said.

According to Kim, this opportunity has positively influenced the way he views the world.

“It was a great opportunity to share profound insights with two powerful individuals who have enormous knowledge and affection for our nations,” he said. “Seeing two presidents in person, looking into their eyes, and paying attention to their body gestures were all emotionally thrilling moments.”

Being part of the meeting reaffirmed his vision to devote his efforts to society with the knowledge gained from his PAM major at Cornell.

“PAM is an interdisciplinary major that provides knowledge in all aspects of contemporary social, economic and political issues,” he said. “We debate on alternative policies to find the one that maximizes society’s overall happiness.

“Throughout my academic career in PAM, I gained great insights and assistance from the PAM faculty who helped me to ponder earnestly about my future and taught ways to approach social problems through the lens of a policy analyst.”

After Cornell, Kim is planning on returning to Korea to pursue a career in law, wanting to devote himself to helping minorities and speaking for misrepresented populations. In the long term, he wants to play a positive role in changing geopolitics of Northeast Asia and in the future prosperity of both the United States and South Korea.

“There is a saying that one can see better from afar than inside,” Kim said. “I have been away from my home country physically for a while now, but my objective lens of policy analysis allows me to tackle social problems better than ever before.”