Imprisoned in North Korea

On Friday I finished the books written by the American journalists who were imprisoned in North Korea for 4½ months last year. Laura Ling and Euna Lee, as well as a male colleague and a local guide, were exploring the Tumen River which separates China from North Korea. They were filming the area at night for a documentary they were making on defectors, and since the Tumen freezes in the winter it is used as an escape route for North Koreans. The local guide took them all to the North Korean side and although they weren’t on foreign soil for any more than a few minutes, the women journalists were captured, and both assert that they were apprehended on the Chinese side of the Tumen. Their male colleague escaped, and he was their lifeline who reported the news of their capture to their families.

Both books tell the same story, yet it is interesting to find out what one woman knew while in captivity and what the other didn’t. I read Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home by Laura Ling and Lisa Ling first, then The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea…A Remarkable Story of Faith, Family, and Forgiveness by Euna Lee with Lisa Dickey.

The narrative of Somewhere Inside is shared by Laura and her sister Lisa. It is not always in a clear, chronological timeline, but that did not detract from the continuity of the story. For example, the sisters would jump around, going from the North Korean story to recounting their experiences being the only Chinese family in their neighbourhood growing up. 

Lisa Ling may be familiar as a correspondent on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and as a former cohost on “The View”. After Laura and Euna’s colleague could notify the two families that the women had been apprehended by North Korean authorities, Lisa used her extensive media contacts to work for a release. I was impressed by all the people she knew or had access to, and it was only a phone call or two to get through to former Vice President Al Gore or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Lisa however tended to go overboard in her lengthy self-publicity, listing her past credentials and work assignments with whoever she contacted for help. 

The families could, eventually, communicate with Laura and Euna through mailed correspondence and while Lisa kept Laura informed about the efforts she was making to get them released, Euna was kept in the dark and did not know what was going to happen to her. Thus Euna’s story, The World is Bigger Now, reads more like a horror story, and there were many times as I was reading her book when I was afraid to turn the page. Euna, unlike Laura, spoke Korean, so she could understand everything her guards were saying and could overhear everything they didn’t want her to. This is a case where knowing too much worked to her detriment. Euna’s guards even persecuted her for betraying her Fatherland, since she had been born in Korea (albeit the South). 

Euna conveys her fear better than Laura, even though Euna does say that “I was so worried about [Laura]–worried about her head wound, the painful stomach ulcer I knew she had, and the fear she must be feeling in a place where she couldn’t even understand the language. As difficult as all this was for me, at least I spoke Korean. I wanted to offer Laura what little comfort I could, especially when I heard her crying in her cell. Fear of something you know can be scary, but fear of the unknown is terrifying.”. Euna was genuinely afraid of being sent to prison for life, or of being executed, and the tales of her fear could make your blood freeze. Even though the families of Laura and Euna kept in touch with each other daily, Laura seems to have more of an idea of what is going on in the efforts to get them released. Lisa’s contacts gave Laura hope while Euna seems to sit depressed in prison not knowing what is going to happen. Her descent into a near nervous breakdown is chilling, especially when she is faced with a life-or-death option with a handful of sleeping pills she had been hoarding.

The constant grilling of both women by their interrogators broke them down. Day after day of brutal interrogation, wherein the inquisitors would manipulate testimony and play one woman against the other, eventually led to Laura confessing to crimes she did not commit: “I sat in silence for a few moments, contemplating what I was about to say. Finally, I forced the words out, ever so slowly. I admitted to having hostile intentions and to trying to topple the North Korean regime. I didn’t know if I was making the dumbest mistake of my life. I had confessed to the gravest possible crime and handed him everything he needed to send me to the firing squad. Had I just walked into a trap from which I might never escape?”. Laura explained later: “By telling them what they wanted to hear, I was hoping they might show leniency.”. 

When Euna is given the opportunity to make a phone call home, she writes “Then it hit me–did I even know anyone else’s number? Whenever I called people at home in L.A., I relied on the contact list on my cellphone. I never bothered to memorize their numbers. It was even harder to remember as almost two months had passed since I’d called anyone at all. I started writing down random phone numbers on a piece of paper. After trying more than twenty times, I finally managed to remember the phone number for my younger sister, Jina, who lives in San Francisco. I also wrote [husband] Michael’s cellphone number down several times to make sure I had it right. This was my one chance to communicate with my family, and I had to make absolutely sure I got through to someone.”. Let this be a warning to all of you who have cellphones. What if you need to call someone and you don’t have your cell with you? Would you know anyone’s phone number?

During a second phone call Euna was allowed to make to her sister, Jina, she writes: “Jina was absolutely quiet on the other end of the line. She didn’t say the words she had said so often in her letters and in the other phone call we’d had. She always told me, “I believe I will see you soon,” and her optimism always made me feel better. But this one time, she didn’t say it. All I could think was, Jina knows something I don’t–something bad–but she doesn’t want to tell me. i’m not going home, I thought. I’m really going to the labor camp.

Euna and Laura were separated after they were imprisoned and do not see each other again until their trial, 2½ months later. Euna writes: “But when I finally saw her, I had an unexpected reaction. I felt completely removed from her emotionally. All those days of interrogation–of hearing that Laura was supposedly cooperating more, or telling her interrogators I was responsible for everything, or revealing things we had agreed to keep secret–had hardened my heart toward her. She may not actually have done any of those things, but Officer Lee had done such a good job of pitting us against each other, I didn’t even want to look at her when she walked in.”. Euna’s mind had been poisoned by her captors. As she tells the reader how she despised Laura at that point, she goes to great lengths to apologize to her for harbouring these thoughts. This degree of openness is absent from Laura’s book, and Euna paints a stripped-down emotional nightmare that exposes not only the horror of the North Korean penal system, but also the horror of a woman she became because of it.

Although they were each sentenced to twelve years in a labour camp, neither spent time there. This was likely the government’s intention all along, as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had to “save face” and sentence the journalists at trial, then use diplomacy to free them. Laura was withheld in “medical detainment” after the sentencing and even when she felt better, doctors always ruled her health as unsuitable for labour camps. Laura learned to believe that this was North Korea’s way of stalling her internment, in order to stimulate talks with American authorities. Euna was miraculously found to be too weak and sickly to be sent to camp, and was kept in prison until she “got better”.

Since Euna could speak Korean she developed a sense of trust with her captors, Officer Lee especially, who broke protocol in order to talk with her. After the sentencing Lee assured her that she and Laura would not be interned in a labour camp since the government reserved such camps only for North Korean citizens. It was only after the sentencing that Euna had some optimism that she would eventually be released, but when, she had no idea. It might appear as though Euna developed a case of Stockholm syndrome towards all her captors and guards, since she confesses that after the sentencing, when she was removed from her prison cell to another place of detainment, she genuinely missed Officer Lee. She spoke fondly of him throughout the second half of her book, even though he terrorized her with his day-long interrogations in which he showed no mercy. She also befriended some of the female guards, who lived with her in her places of confinement, leaving her no privacy whatsoever. Laura, on the other hand, had no such fond feelings for her guards or interrogator. Laura befriended her interpreter as he was the only person she could talk to, and she never wanted him to leave her side, even when she was transferred. Euna, however, took whatever chance she could to talk to her female guards. While some were hardline in demeanor and refused to talk to her, some befriended her as well, sneaking her forbidden candy.

Euna’s story is subtitled “A remarkable story of faith, family, and forgiveness”, and it is her Christianity and relationship with God that help her through this 4½ month-long ordeal. What might be interpreted at first as Stockholm syndrome might instead be a sense of Christian compassion, of loving thine enemy. During her captivity, Euna forbade her family and friends from sending her a Bible, as such a book would be considered forbidden and the consequences of receiving such a gift would be dire. Euna expresses her terror, as well as comfort, in finding Bible verses in the correspondence her family and friends send to her. She realizes, however, that all correspondence coming from home must go through some kind of government censor, and the authorities certainly must have read all of her letters before forwarding them on to her. So she became less fearful of reading comforting Bible verses in her mail, although a Bible or other religious works would certainly have been banned. As Laura and Euna are packing their belongings when they are eventually freed, the guards bring in boxes of gifts, food, clothes and books that their families had sent, but which the authorities withheld. The women go through all such items and are surprised what their families sent yet which they could not receive: there were no Bibles, but popular American novels were banned, as well as all foodstuffs.

Somewhere Inside and The World is Bigger Now are sometimes two of the same, yet sometimes two very different stories. Read both in order to get the full story of what went on last summer in the North Korean prison system.

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