‘A Journey of Hope’

Journalist Laura Ling talks about experiences at NMU talk

Journalist Laura Ling talks about being held captive in North Korea in 2009 as well as some of her other assignments Thursday at Jamrich Hall at Northern Michigan University. The talk, “A Journey of Hope,” was sponsored by the NMU Platform Personalities and the Student Activity Fee. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — For journalist Laura Ling, her presentation called “A Journey of Hope” was more than just a title. It represented a harrowing ordeal in her life.

Ling, co-author with her sister, Lisa, of “Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home,” gave a talk Thursday evening at Jamrich Hall on the campus of Northern Michigan University.

Ling, who has covered global issues ranging from slave labor in the Amazon to women’s rights in the Middle East, was held captive in North Korea for 140 days for attempting to report on defectors from that country.

“Many of the people I have met along the way have shaped my world view and my perspective on the world,” Ling said.

She followed that statement with a video showing clips of her global journalism assignments.

However, much of her talk focused on what began on March 17, 2009.

“Journalists know that certain stories do entail risk, but we also know that leaving certain issues ignored can be detrimental for us as a society, and so we have to weigh those risks and we have to take every precaution,” Ling said.

At the end of the day, anything that can happen, and that’s what happened in 2009 with Ling and her team, which included a producer, a cameraman and Euna Lee, an associate producer and translater.

The crew was reporting on North Korean defectors, one of whom was a woman who thought she was taking a computer job but instead was forced to chat with men online and undress for them on a webcam.

“Tears streamed down her face when she talked about how much she missed her mother,” Ling said.

On March 17, the team visited a river where people were trafficked from North Korea. After hearing yelling, she noticed two North Korean soldiers running toward the crew with their rifles raised.

“And we just ran for our lives,” Ling said.

The producer and cameraman escaped, but Ling and Lee were captured.

“The guards were determined to get us into North Korea and we were determined to stay in China,” she said.

The solder who dragged her was particularly violent, kicking her, pulling her onto the ice and then hitting her on the head with the butt of his rifle.

She then blacked out.

The irony of the situation, Ling acknowledged, was that being hurt wasn’t foremost in her mind.

“I was more worried about my physical well-being while working on the story about the drug war in Mexico,” Ling said. “For this story, our biggest and our main concern was for the safety and security and protection of the people we had been interviewing, and so we were always careful to meet them in places that were far from where they lived or worked and to conceal their identity when we were videotaping and interviewing them.”

What ensued, though, was the most difficult time of her life in what she called one of the “most secretive, isolated countries in the world.”

Ling was sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp.

The fact that they were interviewing North Korean defectors in China who had critical things to say about their government meant the journalists had hostile intentions.

“The North Korean government is perhaps one of the most paranoid regimes in the world, and anything that deviates from this very perfect image it has built for itself in the minds of its people is seen as a threat,” Ling said.

While held captive, she had contemplated suicide, but letters from home, including her sister, lifted her spirits. One guard, who noticed her crying uncontrollably, told her to always have hope.

“I mention these moments because I do think they are a testament to what can happen when people from ‘enemy nations’ or opposite ends of a spectrum get a chance to interact and communicate,” Ling said. “Right now, I think we’re living in very divisive times, but if we only take the chance to engage with those we consider different, we might find out how much we have in common.”

During her 140 days in captivity, there were many highs and lows, but eventually she was reunited with Lee. Then former President Bill Clinton entered the picture, working to gain their freedom.

Why Clinton? Her simple answer was that the late Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea at the time, always wanted to meet him after Clinton became the first leader to offer his condolences after his father died.

“I think it’s a reminder that the things we do today have ripple effects that will impact our lives and others in ways we can never imagine,” Ling said.

In a question-and-answer period following her presentation, Jeremy Donohue, former president of the Young Americans for Liberty on the NMU campus, asked her about the paths the United States is taking in regard to what is perceived as a loss of liberty.

Ling said she’s noticed people, especially young people, are becoming more active and are pushing back against whatever injustices seem to be on the rise.

“Maybe it’s because of the situation I was in,” Ling said. “I try to tend to look for those silver linings and those bright spots, and that’s one thing that has been encouraging.”

That’s not all that encourages her.

During her talk Ling reflected on her time in North Korea, saying she tried to find even small things — like seeing a butterfly outside her window, even though she couldn’t breathe the fresh air — for which to be grateful to get through her ordeal.

It’s a practice she continues to this day.

“I find that it brings me not only a sense of peace but of purpose,” Ling said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.