As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first-ever trip to Hanoi for a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump and an official goodwill visit to Vietnam last week, his interpreter got the chance to be back to where he learned the Vietnamese language more than three decades ago.
In 1984, Ri Ho Jun was enrolled in the Department of Vietnamese Language at Hanoi General University, which is now the Department of Vietnamese Language and Studies under the Vietnam National University-Hanoi.
More than 30 years on, Ri was back to Hanoi as the translator for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was in the Vietnamese capital from February 26 to March 2.
Chairman Kim arrived at Dong Dang Railway Station in the northern province of Lang Son on the morning of February 26, following a 60-hour train journey from Pyongyang through China.
From Dong Dang, he traveled by car to Hanoi, where he had meetings with President Trump for their second summit on February 27 and 28.
After the summit concluded with no deal reached, the North Korean leader paid a friendly visit to Vietnam on March 1 and 2.
He arrived in Pyongyang on his return trip by train on early March 5.
|Ri Ho Jun (left) accompanies North Koreanl eader Kim Jong Un on March 1, 2019. Photo: Nguyen Khanh / Tuoi Tre|
Ri the interpreter was first seen accompanying his leader when Chairman Kim arrived at Dong Dang and when he reached the Melia Hotel, where he stayed during his time in Hanoi.
Many former lecturers of Ri immediately recognized their old student was on duty along the North Korean leader as they watched the broadcast of the event.
"It is not uncommon to see students graduating from our department take up diplomatic positions in other countries,” one of the lecturers, Tran Nhat Chinh, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
“But I was moved to see the North Korean leader coming to Vietnam with a translator that is our former student.”
|Tran Nhat Chinh holds a photo taken with his student Ri Ho Jun 35 years ago. Photo: Ngoc Ha / Tuoi Tre|
A flight to remember
According to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nguyen Thien Nam, head of the Department of Vietnamese Language and Studies, Ri Ho Jun was one of the four North Korean students who signed up for the bachelor’s program of the then-Vietnamese Language Department in the 1980s.
“Ri stood out as the most confident among the four,” Nam told Tuoi Tre.
In 1987, Nam took the four students on a field trip to Ho Chi Minh City, where they had an exchange session with the Department of Vietnamese Literature at Ho Chi Minh City General University.
However, there was a problem upon their return trip.
"It was really hard to get an air ticket to Hanoi at the time, so I could not get one for myself, while my students were able to buy their tickets because they are foreigners,” Nam recalled.
Ri then decided to meet with airline officers and explained the situation.
Thanks to Ri’s efforts, Nam was eventually assigned a seat in the toilet on a Hanoi-bound flight, one day after his students’ trip.
|A scanned copy of a photo in which Ri Ho Jun (left) poses with Tran Nhat Chinh, his former lecturer, at Thu Le Park in Hanoi in 1984|
Daughter followed in dad’s footsteps
Chinh, who also taught Ri and the other three North Korean students, said they were all “excessively hard-working undergraduates."
The four all took a four-year bachelor’s program in Vietnamese from 1984 to 1988.
Chinh still keeps photos of him and his eldest daughter posing with the four North Koreans at Thu Le Park in Hanoi in 1984.
Ri Ho Jun, then more or less 20 years old, was ‘leader’ of this four-member team, and he just did not look much like foreigners at all, Chinh said.
|A scanned copy of a photo of Ri Ho Jun (wearing glasses) when he was a student at the Department of Vietnamese Language, Hanoi General University|
As Chinh did not understand Korean and his students had no background in Vietnamese, they needed English as the means of communication at times.
Ri Ho Jun, according to Chinh, could also speak French.
At that time, foreign students would stay in the dormitory located on their school’s campus.
“As my house was close to the school, the four students often dropped by,” Chinh said.
The North Korean students would proudly wear the badge of their leader Kim Jong Il on their clothes, and, interestingly, “they hardly ever talked about their homeland," Chinh recalled.
|A scanned copy of a photo the four North Korean students took with the family of their lecturer Tran Nhat Chinh in 1984|
After graduation, Ri had been back to Vietnam occasionally and once worked for the North Korean Embassy in Hanoi.
He also paid visits to his former lecturers.
"He once treated my family to dinner at a well-known restaurant on Trang Thi Street,” Chinh said.
“His daughter at that time was also a student at our department and I was the teacher of his daughter too!"