Journalist Laura Ling speaks about experience as North Korea prisoner

Thursday, September 6, 2012 | 11:40 p.m. CDT; updated 11:53 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 6, 2012
Journalist Laura Ling, speaking Thursday at the Missouri Theatre, shares her story of being held captive in North Korea. Ling was detained while reporting on the trafficking of North Korean women. Mizzou Reads sponsored the event in connection with the book "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" by Barbara Demick.

COLUMBIA — Four and a half months of being held captive in North Korea taught journalist Laura Ling not to take her freedom for granted.

Ling spoke Thursday night at the Missouri Theatre about her traumatic experience of being imprisoned in North Korea in the spring and summer of 2009.

"I thought I might not ever see my family ever again," Ling said in the opening of a speech that she shared with about 300 people.

Ling grew up in an "all-American, cookie-cutter community," where writing became her escape. 

"I realized the power journalism has to open people's eyes to issues," she said.

She began her career working as a reporter for Current TV, a television network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

Ling traveled to the Amazon, Haiti, Mexico and many other places, where she covered issues such as drug wars and slave labor.

In March 2009, Ling and journalist Euna Lee traveled to North Korea to make a documentary on trafficking of North Korean women.

"I never truly understood how much our freedom is a luxury until I lost my own," Ling said.

While following their guide across the Tumen River, which marks part of the boundary between China and North Korea, Ling and Lee were arrested by North Korean soldiers for illegal entry into China.

"I thought I was going to die," Ling said. 

The two women had on them notes about the North Korean regime, which they knew would not be looked upon favorably by the soldiers. Afraid of what would happen, they destroyed everything they had.

"We tore up our notes and swallowed them," Ling said. 

Ling and Lee were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in one of North Korea's prison camps. They were isolated, with no one to talk to.

Ling tried her best to converse with her guards. One day, a female guard was crying and Ling reached her arms out to hug her. 

"That small brief interaction with another human being made me feel more alive," she said.

During those 140 days of captivity, Ling was able to receive letters from her family and friends. She would memorize every single word.

"They were my oxygen," she said. 

During her imprisonment, Ling learned how to be grateful for the smallest things, like having a meal to eat or seeing a butterfly in the window. She also learned not to take anything for granted.

Meanwhile, her family was trying to figure out the conditions in which the North Korean government would release the two women.

Ling and Lee were released through the intervention of former President Bill Clinton. The most widely accepted explanation was that Clinton's personal condolences to Kim Jong II at the death of his father, in 1994, convinced the dictator to return the favor.

A year after returning home, Ling became the host of E! Investigates, a documentary television series. Ling covers issues affecting young Americans.  

In her closing remarks, Ling read a poem called "Caged Bird" and urged the audience to cherish their freedom and to be a voice for those who need one.

"I am home, and I am free," Ling said. 

Supervising editor is Simina Mistreanu.

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