Survivor of North Korean imprisonment describes ordeal


Journalist Laura Ling described to a Morning Forum of Los Altos audience her 140 days imprisoned in North Korea and her sister’s role in freeing her.

In her Jan. 15 presentation “Journey of Hope,” Ling offered an account of her capture and the efforts of her sister, Lisa Ling, to secure her release. The sisters co-authored a book about their experience, “Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home.”

Ling has spent two decades as an award-winning journalist and web and TV host. She has focused on global issues including slave labor in the Amazon, the drug war in Mexico and women’s rights in Turkey.

In March 2009, Ling was on the border of China and North Korea with a team of journalists from Al Gore’s Current TV. The crew was working on a story about North Korean women who had crossed the porous border between. Seeking a better life, many had been forced into loveless marriages with Chinese men who couldn’t find wives because of the gender imbalance created by decades of the one-child rule. Others Ling interviewed ended up in even worse situations as part of the sex trafficking industry.

On March 17, their guide led them across the frozen Tumen River that separates China from North Korea. Ling said the crew never intended to go into North Korea. Just as they turned back, North Korean soldiers with rifles started chasing them.

“Overcome with fear,” Ling said, “I collapsed on the ice and my co-worker Euna Lee turned back to help me.”

The two men in the group got away.

Ling admitted that despite the initial beating she endured, she wasn’t as afraid for herself as she was for the North Koreans she had interviewed. She ripped up her notebook, swallowed some of the pages and stuffed others down the toilet to protect their identities.

When the guards blindfolded them, Lee assumed that they were about to be executed. Put in 5-foot-by-6-foot cells, Lee and Ling were questioned and grilled for “hours and hours, day after day,” Ling said.

Ling’s biggest concern was her family, knowing how confused and worried they would be.

According to Ling, she and Lee were the first Americans to be tried in a North Korean court. The judge gave them a 12-year sentence in a hard labor camp and proclaimed, “No forgiveness, no appeals.”

While her guards initially maintained a cold facade, Ling said, over time they warmed up. One admitted that she felt bad that she could see her family while Ling couldn’t, and another hugged Ling when she found her sobbing after her sentencing. The guards even asked her about dating practices in the U.S., and one knew a little rap that she showed off.

Fight for freedom

Despite the harsh sentence, Ling was allowed to receive letters and phone calls from home. Her sister Lisa, a journalist for CNN, tirelessly used every contact she had to find ways to win Laura’s and Euna’s freedom.

Soon Ling realized that her chance for freedom would require that a former president visit North Korea’s president, Kim Jung-il. While Jimmy Carter volunteered to go, the North Koreans insisted on Bill Clinton. But Ling held little hope that Clinton would be allowed to come, because his wife was then Secretary of State.

Ling and Lee were told Aug. 6 that a special envoy had come to see them. When she saw Bill Clinton in the hall, Ling said, “the lighting made it look like he had a halo over his head.” The next day the two journalists flew home in the privately financed plane that had flown the former president to the North Korean capital Pyongyang.

Ling said that after her release, she learned why Kim had been so insistent on meeting Clinton. As president, Clinton had sent Kim a letter of condolence on the death of his father, Kim Il-sung. That small act of kindness, Ling believes, “had a ripple effect that helped secure our freedom.”

What helped Ling stave off thoughts of suicide at the prospect of 12 years of hard labor in North Korea’s notorious labor camps? She felt a bond of humanity with her guards, and one guard’s admonition to “hold on to hope, things will get better” strengthened her resolve. She also sustained hope by daily reciting Maya Angelou’s words from the poem “Caged Bird”: “The caged bird sings of freedom.”

Ling’s months of captivity have shaped her life since. While she still has nightmares about the experience, she said she is overcome with gratitude for the kindnesses – big and small – that helped her endure her captivity and set her free. She said she practices gratitude daily, never takes for granted the freedom Americans have that is denied to so many, and recognizes that “kindness has the power to unite us all.”

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. New members are invited to join. For membership details and more information, visit

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