When Euna Lee and Laura Ling were captured at the North Korea-China border by North Korean officials in March 2009, the two American journalists went from reporting the story to becoming the story.
As they were held captive, tried for illegally crossing the border and convicted in North Korean court, the two made international headlines. But the story, of course, has a happy ending. After President Bill Clinton negotiated with officials, Lee and Ling were pardoned by Kim Jong-il and allowed to return home, ending nearly five months of imprisonment.
In her new book, “The World Is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release From Captivity,” Lee fills in the blanks of what happened to the women during their time in a country that has been mostly closed off to the rest of the world for decades. She reveals details that not only paint a vivid picture of her personal experience in North Korea, but also tell the stories of the people she met there.
Lee begins with a bang, describing the night that she and Ling were captured by the Tumen River on March 17, 2009. The two were accompanied by Mitch Koss, their colleague at Current TV, and an unnamed guide.
“At that point, the guide motioned for us to follow him past the midpoint of the river — and as we crossed into North Korean territory, my heart began to pound,” Lee wrote. “I knew this was a risky move, but I was so intent on getting the story out, I didn’t focus on the potential danger.”
Lee focuses on that professional mentality as she backtracks and explains how she came to work for Current TV. Back in 1996, she had been a South Korean student, only in the United States to study film editing at San Francisco State University. The plan had always been to return to South Korea and marry a nice boy when she was finished studying. Then she fell in love with an actor, and everything changed — except her dedication to her work.
Her work ethic, which she attributes to her desire to give back and which was instilled in her by her South Korean parents, became a point of contention. It kept her working late hours so she could become an editor for Vanguard, Current TV’s documentary team, and distanced her from her husband, Michael Saldate, and their daughter, Hana.
“I just kept working harder and harder, convinced deep down that if I could make a certain amount of money or achieve a certain social status, my family would be happy,” she wrote. “What I didn’t ever notice was that the pursuit itself was actually robbing us of happiness, as my ambitions — and my stress level — rose.”
Her love of her family provides a riveting connection to the story. After her capture, Lee wrote notes to her husband, at first to describe what was happening to her in Pyongyang. Eventually they became a form of catharsis. Most of the notes weren’t sent, but they helped her get through her days.
In one heart-wrenching letter, she shared her thoughts on the day that her 4 year old graduated from pre-school: “In an hour Hana’s graduation will start. You know how much I wanted to be there for her. ... I hope she won’t be too sad for me not being there for her. Please, could you please tell her that Mommy really tried hard to make it. Honey, from now on for two hours I will think of you and Hana like I am there for you guys.”
Her connection with her captors makes for an interesting twist. Because she was born and raised in South Korea, Lee was able to speak with her captors, which Ling couldn’t do. At first, she portrays Officer Lee, the main interrogator, harshly, describing how he tried to pit her and Ling against each other and how he yelled as he demanded answers for her confession. But later, he becomes a gentleman who knocked on her door before entering and encouraged her to speak with the Swedish ambassador, who would end up helping negotiate her release.
Most enjoyable about Lee’s story is her resilience. She experiences fear and despair, as can be expected from anyone taken captive, but what keeps her going is her faith.
“I think I am a stronger person than I thought,” she wrote in one letter to her husband that inspires tears. “And I am okay now. I know I will cry again tomorrow morning, but I am okay now.”
“The World is Bigger Now” may serve as Lee’s account of her captivity, but it also provides insights into the politics of imprisonment and into a society that has long been closed to the rest of the world, resulting in a worthwhile read.