On Wednesday evening, acclaimed journalist and human rights activist Laura Ling spoke to students about her 140-day captivity in North Korea.
In 2009, while reporting along the China-North Korea border, Ling and fellow journalist Euna Lee were apprehended by North Korean soldiers. The two women were charged with illegal entry into North Korea and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in a prison camp.
In August 2009, former President Bill Clinton met with former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang to negotiate Lee and Ling’s release.
“Five years ago, I thought I might never get the chance to see my family ever again,” Ling said. “But just this morning I kissed my 3-year-old daughter and my two-month-old baby boy, the children I once thought I might never get the chance to have.”
Ling traveled to the border to cover a story about North Korean defectors in China. Many of these defectors are women, trafficked into prostitution and arranged marriages.
Prior to her capture, Ling said that she prioritized her interviewees’ safety over her own.
“The ironic thing is that this wasn’t necessarily a story in which I was fearful for my own physical wellbeing,” Ling said. “Our biggest and main concern was for the safety and security of the people we had been interviewing.”
Ling noted, however, that the situation was extremely unpredictable.
“Anything can happen once you’re in the field,” Ling said. “Situations that you could never have planned for evolve, and you’re forced to react.”
On the day of her capture, Ling and her team went to the frozen Tumen River, the thoroughfare that separates China and North Korea. Though they did not intend to enter North Korea, their local guide ensured them that it was safe to cross. After filming for one minute on North Korean soil, the group was halfway across the river when Ling heard yelling from two armed soldiers.
Ling described her captor as particularly violent, beating and kicking her in the head. The soldier raised the butt of his rifle and struck Ling’s head, causing her to black out immediately.
“At one moment, I’m reporting on a humanitarian crisis that’s taking place along the border with China and North Korea that neither country wants the world to know about,” Ling said. “And in the very next moment, I’m a prisoner, in one of the most isolated countries in the world and one that views our own as its enemy.”
Ling described the ensuing 140 days as the most terrifying time of her life. She shared glimpses into her captivity in the so-called “hermit kingdom,” highlighting moments of compassion and humanity that she also experienced.
Ling recalled a conversation she had with a female guard. The guard expressed sadness that she had the opportunity to spend time with her family while Ling had been separated from hers for so long.
Throughout her detainment, Ling communicated periodically with her family. Her sister Lisa, a prominent broadcast journalist, reached out to her political connections and worked tirelessly to secure Laura’s release. After several discussions with North Korean authorities, Laura found out that Clinton would be the only acceptable envoy to negotiate her release.
“It was one of the lowest points of my captivity because I didn’t think someone of President Clinton’s stature would be approved to make such an unpredictable trip,” Ling said. “And so I mentally began to prepare myself to be sent to a labor camp.”
When she saw President Clinton before her, she experienced utter astonishment and disbelief.
“I swear he had a halo over his head,” Ling said.
Ling concluded her lecture by encouraging aspiring journalists to pursue their passion.
“Being able to make people more aware of what’s happening in our world and in our own backyard is a vital service, and one that I have found to be deeply rewarding.”