There are a lot of questions swirling around in the lead up to Donald Trump's historic summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, but one of the most perplexing is also one of the simplest: how will they communicate? Does Kim Jong Un speak English? As with so many things surrounding the so-called "Hermit Kingdom" that is North Korea, however, no one has a clear-cut answer to that question yet.
According to a recent report from United Press International (UPI), some experts in South Korea believe that Kim's Western education might have also given him fluency in English, which would allow him to carry out the summit in Trump's native tongue. However, UPI couldn't determine what degree of fluency — if any — that Kim actually has.
What's known for sure is that Kim went to high school in Switzerland, attending at least two different exclusive private boarding schools. Not long before he was named as the successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, Swiss magazine L'Hebdo reported that Kim had indeed studied English while he was in Switzerland, along with German and French. However, the Telegraph reported in 2012 that Kim had gotten bad grades almost across the board, reportedly only passing English with the minimum grade.
As we can probably all remember from our high school language classes, barely passing a class in high school doesn't necessarily translate to fluency later in life. Since North Korea is so secretive about its leader, though, then there could very well be something that the media has missed about Kim's talent with languages. Consider the Washington Post report, for example, about Kim meeting Dennis Rodman in 2013. The Post wrote that Chinese state media had said that the two "talked directly to each other and laughed" at a basketball game involving the Harlem Globetrotters and North Korean players, but they also added the caveat that they did not entirely trust the Chinese take on the meeting.
Metro then described a Sky News report from 2014 that said that Rodman and Kim had indeed communicated through interpreters and that Kim didn't speak any English. Essentially, none of the reports about Kim's educational background or his rare meetings with foreigners have been able to determine exactly what his level is when it comes to the majority of the world's lingua franca.
Even the experts who UPI spoke to were split about how Kim might conduct the meeting with Trump.
"If Kim shows a strong command of English during the U.S.-North Korea summit, Trump is likely to be surprised," said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies. "Conversing in his counterpart's language could help smoothen the atmosphere for negotiations."
Others, however, did not believe this to be possible, because being able to hold high-level talks on diplomatic matters requires a much higher degree of fluency than just carrying out a simple conversation.
"Kim may have learned English during his studies abroad but he doesn't seem to be perfectly fluent," said Ahn Chan Il, a North Korean defector who was a military leader in his home country and who now heads up the World Institute for North Korea Studies. "It's likely he will greet President Trump in English and use an interpreter for the meeting."
In short, it's clear that Kim definitely studied English in school, but the jury is still out as to how well he can actually communicate in it. Although there's no general consensus yet, it seems very likely that Trump and Kim will at least have an interpreter present as they hold their monumental meeting.