Tuesday, March 17, 2009 was a day that changed the lives of two families, their relatives and all of their friends. The events that took place captured the nation and even had the United States government in shock, preparing to initiate discussions with the most isolated, unpredictable and secretive country in the world.
That was the day Laura Ling and her colleague, Euna Lee, were captured and detained by North Korean border guards, becoming the first Americans to be tried in the highest level of the country’s court. The two were on assignment to expose North Korean defectors, who were lured, exploited, used and sold by smugglers. These defectors would cross the Tumen River, which acted as the only indication of a border that separated the two countries.
Despite the hardships of living in China, one escaped defector told Laura, “I am still better off in China. At least I have white rice to eat, even if I am in a loveless marriage with a poor peasant.”
This was the powerful story Laura set out to uncover. She had no intentions of ever leaving China and crossing the border. However, the local fixer, or guide, led her across the frozen river, began shouting out loud and promptly stepped foot on North Korean soil, motioning for her to follow.
“I know that Euna and I were victims because we trust fixers too much,” Laura said. “But, as journalists, you come to always trust your hired fixer.”
Reluctantly, Laura ignored her instincts and set foot on the other side, only to start running back for China immediately. But before she could completely reach land, the ice broke from underneath her and her foot fell into the freezing water.
In the midst of all this, Laura turned back to see North Korean guards screaming and running after her. Her frozen foot prevented her from sprinting and they eventually caught up. As Euna and Laura both tried to hang onto trees and bushes to remain on Chinese soil, the guards beat Laura, knocking her unconscious and dragged them both back to North Korea, where they promptly arrested the two women.
“It was surreal,” Laura said. “One moment I’m doing my job, reporting on something North Korea and China both don’t want people to know about. The next minute I felt like I had literally landed on an alien planet.”
This set off an immediate chain of reactions. Revealed in “Somewhere Inside,” a book penned by Laura and her prominent journalist sister, Lisa Ling, all of their contacts within the government were notified once they learned of the capture.
Lisa herself went to North Korea after Dr. Sanduk Ruit, a friend from Nepal, who was asked to perform thousands of cataract surgeries in the country. They convinced North Korea that Lisa was a crucial member of the doctor’s team, not a journalist, and that she was taping the process for training purposes. Upon arriving back to the U.S., Lisa released a very critical documentary on North Korea and what happens inside this closed country.
“North Korea is this little tiny country that has been able to remain in defiance for so long,” Lisa said. “I was able to get an uncontrived look at what North Korean life was like.”
Because of what she exposed, Lisa was nervous for what the North Korean government would do to her sister as revenge.
Initially suggested by the government to remain silent because of the fragile relations between the U.S. and North Korea, Lisa finally notified the press after Laura was allowed a rare telephone call to her family. In that call, Laura revealed that it “has been too quiet” in the United States and that the North Korean government wanted to hear that actions were taking place. Although they purposely neglected to say specifically who they wanted, North Korea warned that an envoy must be sent at once.
As Lisa struggled to deduce the puzzle and pick the appropriate envoy, Laura and Euna were separated and extensively interrogated. A court date was set, where their actions were later reprimanded. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.
“Those were the longest days of my life,” Laura said, describing her time held captive. “Every minute seemed like an eternity and I watched the clock a lot. I would meditate, walk in circles and practice the act of gratitude. For instance, I would say that I was grateful that I saw a butterfly outside the window or that I received three meals, despite the meager portions.”
Laura has always been the more forgiving and optimistic of the two sisters, which may have helped her get through better.
Very protective of her little sister, Lisa was ready to accuse North Korea of violating China’s sovereignty. However, she understood the delicacy of the situation that North Korea held all the cards and angering them was absolutely the wrong thing to do.
It turned out that all North Korea wanted was Bill Clinton, a monumental request. Several high government officials, including Al Gore and Jimmy Carter, planned a trip to the country, but were refused. Laura finally realized that Clinton was the only option.
As everyone found out later, North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il desperately wanted to meet Clinton because of one small act of kindness many years ago. When Kim Jong-il’s father died, Clinton was the first to call and offer his condolences, even before the country’s allies did. Kim Jong-il never forgot, which is why Clinton was so instrumental in their release. In fact, Clinton not only got North Korea to pardon the girls on Aug. 4, 2009, but he also convinced Kim Jong-il to free a few South Korean prisoners. Laura and Lisa were now merely a channel through which the two countries could talk.
“It’s so strange that we can trace back to that one phone call as to why I am here today,” Laura said.
It was similar acts of humanity from North Korean citizens that kept Laura going when she was imprisoned.
“I will never forget the female guards, who were tasked with keeping me prisoner. At first, they were cold, scary and intimidating – the perfect portrayal of Kim Jong-il,” Laura said.
Soon, however, they became her only companions. She recalls how they always considered her feelings, neglecting to talk about their own families because they thought it would hurt Laura.
After the sentencing, one guard, who spoke broken English, said, “Laura, always have hope,” which impacted Laura so much that she now signs all of her books with that statement.
Laura believes that these moments are a testament to what can happen when people from different cultures interact face-to-face. Both sisters have hope that U.S. and North Korea relations can be eased, although it will take time.
A little over a year after her release, Laura is focusing on her family and embracing motherhood. She named her daughter Li Jefferson Clayton. Li is Lisa’s nickname and Jefferson is Clinton’s middle name. Currently reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” she and Lisa are informally starting their “Ling Girl Book Club.” They both have not ruled out doing an investigative report together sometime in the future.
As teenagers, they were drawn to journalism because they wanted to “break out of the cookie-cutter model and expose the public to the real world.”
For Laura, covering the toxic villages of electric waste in China was the most influential; for Lisa, it was her first time in Afghanistan, covering their civil war in 1994.
Now as mature adults, they continue to tell the more “risky” stories, like America’s homeless, Mexico’s drug wars and sex trafficking, because “those are the ones that don’t get told.”
Laura and Lisa have loved interviewing these ordinary people, who open up so truthfully to them because they want to share their stories with people who treat them as humans. They even put their lives on the line to protect their subjects’ privacy, which is why they are so revered in their profession today. They started out as two girls who wanted to uncover stories that were bigger than themselves and they haven’t stopped at all, despite the potential danger involved.
“It is weird to be known as ‘the girl Bill Clinton saved’ or ‘the North Korean girl,’” Laura said. “But if what happened finally allows me to tell the story I wanted to tell, then I would be happy to live with those designations.”