Journalist shares lessons learned from captivity in North Korea

Sophie Whyte

Journalist Laura Ling comes to Columbia to speak about her North Korean imprisonment. Photo by Sophie Whyte
Three years after being sentenced to a seemingly inescapable fate of hard labor for 12 years, journalist Laura Ling was on the stage of Missouri Theatre to share her horrifically enthralling story of her 140 days as a North Korean detainee.
On March 17, Ling and her colleagues were reporting on human trafficking of North Koreans. A local guide showed them across the ice of the Tumen River, the river that divides North Korea and China, and led them right into North Korea.
While the crew was only there for minutes, North Korean soldiers chased after the journalists. Running for their lives, Ling’s foot fell through the ice and slowed her significantly. While some crew members escaped, Ling and co-worker Euna Lee were captured.
“I just felt the weight of the world pulling me down,” Ling said about her first reaction. “I was paralyzed with fear.”
Ling not only feared for her own physical well-being, but also for the safety of the North Koreans she interviewed. In order to protect their identities, Ling and Euna destroyed all evidence of communication, even resorting to eating their notes.
After interrogations and days of solitude in jail cells, Ling worried for her family and what seemed to be a hopeless future. As seconds turned to minutes and stretched into days, Ling faced another battle: the loneliness that came with imprisonment.
“There was no one to talk to,” Ling said. “I would try to strike up conversation with my guards, and every now and again they’d let their guards down and we’d make some small talk. Those conversations, however brief, would just lift my spirit.”
Ling suffered brutality and despair, but encountered acts of kindness, too. One of Ling’s guards had been away visiting family, and when Ling asked if she had a good time, the guard replied yes. However, the guard mentioned how bad she felt that she could see her family while Ling was separated from hers for so long. The guard, having nothing but words to offer to Ling, managed to gift Ling with something that she said she will never forget, wrapped simply in three short words: “always have hope.”
Hope helped Ling ride through the long days in imprisonment, and finally, a bit of joy that came to Ling in the letters she received from her family. She read them multiple times over until each line had been memorized. She and her husband, unable to be together in person, decided that at 9 a.m. in North Korea and 5 p.m. in Los Angeles daily, each spouse would look outside their window and think about the other.
Fewer than five months later, because of diplomatic maneuvering and political pressure, Ling was able to return home and see her husband in person and in the same time zone. Because of her ordeal, Ling now realizes just how fortunate she is to live in a democratic society with freedoms that are unimaginable to some. One hundred and forty days of captivity was harsh, but Ling said she believes it is nothing compared to what some North Korean citizens face every day of their lives.
Although business, stress and constant working seem to fill the lives of Americans, through her experience as a detainee, Ling has come to value the littlest of things and not get caught up in things that aren’t as important.
“One day we will wish we had more time with the people we love,” Ling said. “I want to do things that have meaning, and I want to make my little daughter proud.”
By Sophie Whyte