Editor's note: Laura Ling, along with her colleague Euna Lee, was violently captured by Kim Jong Il's soldiers while filming a documentary about North Korean defectors on the Chinese–North Korean border in March 2009. The story of her imprisonment and release are told in captivating detail by Laura and her sister, journalist Lisa Ling. Read an excerpt from their book "Somewhere Inside," and don't miss Lisa and Laura on AC360 at 8 and 10 p.m. ET tonight. They'll tell Dr. Sanjay Gupta about their experience within the borders of Kim Jong Il's secretive state and give their perspective on the notorious leader's death.
Somewhere inside north korea
Please do not share this letter with Mom or Dad as I do not want them to worry. I am trying so hard to be strong, but it gets harder and harder every day. It is so difficult to get through each day. I miss you all so much it hurts. I want my big sister.
As I’m sure you know, I am in the worst possible situation.
We arrived in Yanji, China, on March 13, 2009. The mountainous region that borders Russia and North Korea is one of China’s coldest. As our team walked out of the airport, I clenched my fists tightly and hid my face in my woolen scarf to protect me against the bone-chilling, cloud-covered night. Over the past decade, I have made more than half a dozen trips to China—it’s where my father and his forefathers are from, and it’s always been one of the most fascinating places to work as a journalist. I’d reported from different parts of the vast country, but this was my first time in the northeast, where a large portion of the population is of Korean ancestry. The project we were working on had as much to do with something happening in neighboring North Korea as it did with this part of China, and being in Yanji, I could immediately sense a connection between the Korean and Chinese cultures. Signs are written in both Korean and Chinese characters; most of the restaurants serve Korean food. It would be easy for someone of Korean descent to blend in, without knowing a single word of Chinese.
Our small team consisted of producer/cameraman Mitchell Koss, coproducer/translator Euna Lee, and myself. We had traveled to the area to investigate a controversial issue to which neither the North Korean nor the Chinese governments wants any attention drawn. Millions of citizens of North Korea, one of the most isolated, repressive countries in the world, suffer from dire poverty and brutal conditions, and some of them take the risk of fleeing, or defecting, from their homeland by crossing the border into neighboring China.
But once in China, they end up facing a different kind of degradation.
China does not classify these defectors as refugees, but as illegal immigrants, so rather than finding safe haven across the border, most of them end up in hiding, living underground in fear of being arrested by Chinese authorities. Those who are caught and repatriated back to North Korea could be sent to one of the country’s notorious gulags, where they face torture or worse.
Most of these defectors are North Korean women who are preyed on by traffickers and pimps. These women escape from their country to find food; some are promised jobs in the restaurant or manufacturing industries. But they soon find out that a different, dark fate awaits them. Many end up being sold into marriages or forced into China’s booming sex industry. I wanted to open people’s eyes to the stories of these despairing women who are living in a horrible, bleak limbo with no protection or rights.
On our first night in Yanji, our three-person team arranged to meet up with the man we’d hired to be our guide. He was referred to us by a Seoul-based missionary, Pastor Chun Ki-Won, who has become a kind of legend in the area for helping North Korean defectors find passage to South Korea through an underground network. Our guide had worked with Chun as well as other foreign journalists in the past. He was also a kind of smuggler himself, with deep connections in North Korea. He claimed to have a clandestine operation in North Korea that loaned out Chinese cell phones to North Koreans and, for a fee, let them call relatives or friends in China or South Korea. Telephone use is strictly controlled in North Korea, and making calls outside of the country without permission is almost impossible and dangerous.
We met our guide, a Korean-Chinese man who appeared to be in his late thirties, at our hotel to discuss our plans. His reserved demeanor and deadpan expression made him a hard read. We were hoping he could introduce us to some defectors and take us to the border area where North Koreans make their way to China. He said he could make the arrangements, but emphasized the risky nature of our investigation. We knew we would have to be cautious and discrete so we didn’t put any defectors at risk of deportation.
Before leaving for China, our team had decided to forgo applying for journalist visas. Normally, foreign journalists working in China are required to have a special visa and must also work with a Chinese media entity. But because of the nature of our story and the sensitivity with which the Chinese government regards the issue of North Korean defectors, we decided to enter the country as tourists. We didn’t want to draw attention to the people we were interviewing, so as not to endanger them or ourselves. We would be careful to conceal the identity of defectors when we filmed them, focusing on body parts or the backs of heads rather than faces or easily identifiable features.
I hadn’t been particularly worried about Laura’s assignment to the Chinese–North Korean border. A month earlier she had been in Juarez, Mexico, a city that had a higher death rate than Baghdad. The Los Angeles Times regularly carried headline stories about law enforcement officers and journalists being attacked by narco-traffickers. Every day Laura was there, I was struck by episodes of paralytic concern. She and her producer were shadowing Mexican homicide reporters who were chasing death. The documentary that aired showed one gruesome crime scene after another—from corpses left in a trash-filled ravine to mutilated bodies riddled with dozens of bullet holes. Needless to say, our family breathed a major sigh of relief when Laura was finally back from that assignment. She was so preoccupied with getting the Mexico show on the air that she never even told me
she was going to Asia several weeks later. It was almost an afterthought when she mentioned that soon she would be leaving for another trip.
“What are you doing?” I pressed. “You just came back. I thought you were going to stop traveling so much.”
“I know, Li,” she replied. “Don’t worry. Everything is already set up.”
Laura and her team were headed first to Seoul and then to China’s border with North Korea to meet up with contacts and do some prearranged interviews. The trip was supposed to last a week and a half. My husband, Paul, even made a dinner reservation at a new barbecue restaurant for the Friday of Laura’s return. Still, none of us, including our parents and Laura’s husband, Iain, were eager for her to go. She had just wrapped up an extensive assignment, and we felt she had been working too hard recently. But arguing with Laura was pointless. She had always put a great deal of pressure on herself and felt obligated to do everything herself. She never stopped working.
Whenever we were together, she constantly checked her Blackberry no matter what was going on around her. I’m a self-professed BlackBerry addict too, but Laura put me to shame. I found myself constantly frustrated by her lack of attention to anything but work. A few times I noticed it taking a toll on Iain. More than once I tried to scare her by telling her she better start paying more attention to her husband or he might find someone else who would.
For this assignment along the Chinese–North Korean border, one of my two colleagues, Mitch Koss, was someone with whom I’d been working closely for the past several years. Mitch had been a mentor to me, a driving force in my decision to pursue journalism. I also considered him an extended member of my family. He’d worked with my sister, Lisa, when she was just starting her journalism career. After Lisa left Channel One News, where she and Mitch had worked together for five years, he approached me to help him with an assignment as a researcher. I jumped at the opportunity.
Over the years, Mitch and I worked on more than three dozen stories spanning the globe, including a visit in the summer of 2002 to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, where we, along with the Korean-American tour group to which we were assigned, were taken on a highly monitored tour of the capital’s most impressive monuments and sights.
Then in 2005 I was hired by Current TV, former Vice President Al Gore’s cable network, to develop its journalism department. Mitch was also brought on board by Current to advise other young journalists. Each week, our unit produced a half-hour investigative documentary program called Vanguard. In addition to my role as manager of the sixteen-person team, I was also one of the on-air correspondents, reporting from various locations around the world. In the past year, I had covered China’s restive Muslim population, life on parole in America, and Mexico’s drug war. Now I was here in China’s frigid northeast reporting on the trafficking of North Korean women.
My other colleague, Euna, was an editor in our journalism department. Because of her fluency in Korean, she was working on the project as a translator as well as a coproducer. Euna is a Korean American and I knew this made her particularly devoted to the assignment. She had been in communication with Pastor Chun in advance of our trip and, with his help, made most of our filming arrangements.
On a hazy, overcast morning, one day after our arrival in Yanji, our guide drove us two hours away to a logging town along the Chinese–North Korean border. We arrived at a small, dusty village where we met with Mrs. Ahn, a woman who appeared to be in her early fifties. She had fled North Korea in the late nineties at the height of a devastating famine. Estimates vary, but it’s believed that anywhere from hundreds of thousands to perhaps three million people died as a result of the famine. Conditions were so dire during that time that many North Koreans attempted to escape to China, where they heard they could get white rice, which had become virtually nonexistent in North Korea. Defectors, including Mrs. Ahn, bribed North Korean border guards to let them cross the river into China. Some hired so-called brokers to guide them across the treacherous waters. But once in China, many found themselves lost, with no way to make a living. The brokers, taking advantage of their vulnerable state, ended up selling these desperate women to Chinese men as wives.
The selling of women as brides is becoming increasingly rampant throughout China. In 1979 the Chinese government, in reaction to its exploding population, began limiting the number of children Chinese couples could have to one. The policy became known as the One Child Policy. What the government did not anticipate was that so many couples would want that one child to be male. As a result, tens of thousands of Chinese baby girls were aborted or abandoned, and today the country has tens of millions more males than females. Already men are having a difficult time finding wives, and women are being trafficked from other parts of the world, including North Korea, to fill this role. The women are sold off like animals to Chinese men, many of whom live in China’s impoverished countryside. While these women may receive more sustenance living as purchased brides, they exist without residency certification or identification cards, which means that at any point they can be arrested and sent back to North Korea, where they face certain punishment.
Not only is the reality grim for these women defectors, but the children they bear to Chinese husbands also suffer. The Chinese government does not view the marriages of North Korean defectors to Chinese men as legitimate and therefore does not recognize these children as citizens. If the mothers are repatriated to North Korea or resold to other men, as sometimes happens, the fathers often end up abandoning the children. Some of these children are cast away because their fathers are too old and disabled to care for them. With no identification cards, they are unable to attend school, and they are denied health care; they must live in the shadows as stateless children. At a clandestine foster home run by a missionary in Pastor Chun’s network, we met with a half-dozen foster children between the ages of six and ten who were being given clothes, a warm, clean place to live, and an education. It was hard to realize that without the help of Chun’s group, these young souls might be roaming the streets without any parents or a government to provide for them. They would be lost and without identities.
Although conditions have improved in North Korea since the famine of the 1990s, a new generation of defectors is fleeing the country because the situation remains bleak and hunger is widespread. North Korea has maintained its overwhelming control over its citizens in part because of a propaganda machine that over the years has caused its people to believe that the rest of the world has been suffering even more than North Korea has. But little by little, information seems to be seeping in the country.
The demilitarized zone, or DMZ, separating the two Koreas is the most heavily fortified border in the world. Soldiers on either side patrol their respective area along the thirty-eighth parallel, where in 1953 U.S. administrators divided the peninsula, three years after the start of the Korean War. The war was suspended by an armistice, but it never officially ended, meaning that the two sides are technically still at war. Because of the DMZ’s impenetrable barrier, where on one side thousands of U.S. troops support South Korean forces, and where nearly a million North Korean soldiers are stationed on the opposing side, it has been relatively easy for the North to keep information from hi-tech South Korea from flowing into its country.
China, on the other hand, is North Korea’s closest ally. The border between the two countries is extremely porous. In many areas there are no fences or actual barriers, only a narrow river, between the two countries. As a result, a thriving black market has emerged in North Korea as Korean-Chinese businesspeople take advantage of the North’s isolation. Not only do products from China seep across the border, so does knowledge about China’s economic prosperity. North Korea, the so-called Hermit Kingdom, is finding it harder and harder to keep information about the rest of the world from coming across its border.
One afternoon we took a taxi from our hotel in Yanji to a nearby location where we had arranged to meet with a young woman who had fled North Korea the previous year. Ji-Yong was in her early twenties and had a round baby face. She looked as if she was playing dress up in her black go-go boots, long, thick false eyelashes, and electric blue eye shadow. We picked her up and drove her back to our hotel.
While Ji-Yong was able to eat three meals a day in her village in North Korea, the portions were very small. Many North Koreans only receive meat on very special holidays, which occur roughly three times a year. Ji-Yong, like an increasing number of young North Korean women, was told by a broker that he could find her a job making good money working with computers. Unable to swim, and in the dark of night, these girls brave the cold, rushing water of the bordering river to reach the other side, where the promise of opportunity awaits them. Some perish along the way. While the broker did arrange for Ji-Yong to work with computers, it wasn’t the office job she had envisioned. She was placed in the online sex industry, video chatting with clients and undressing for them online.
Many women like Ji-Yong are filling the ranks of China’s growing prostitution and Internet sex world. They must pay back large sums in order to win their freedom, an almost impossible task given their paltry wages. Some are beaten and confined in their working quarters. Others are afraid to leave for fear of being arrested and deported.
I was proud of the story Laura would be reporting. We had both covered a number of stories about sexual trafficking throughout our careers and felt strongly about the issue. When our mother was a child growing up in Taiwan, she had seen desperate women having to sell their bodies to survive. Her stories both enraged and touched us as women, and as young journalists we sought to raise awareness about the global sexual exploitation of women whenever possible.
But in recent months, I was starting to get very concerned that Laura was overworking herself. Her self-imposed pressure was unrelenting. It hurt me to see how much her work was bleeding into her personal life, even to the point where it started affecting her health. She had literally made herself sick from taking on so much.
Our family was most concerned about the recurring ulcers she had been dealing with for more than a year. I can’t recall how many times Laura would call from another country to tell me about her stomach ailments, which seemed to be made worse by severe foreign environments. She had been on medication for more than a year, and her last endoscopy indicated that though her original ulcer had shrunk, a new one had formed. I was with her during that procedure and became deeply saddened because she and Iain had been seriously thinking of starting a family, and she didn’t want to do that while she was on ulcer medication. My husband, Paul, is a physician, and he was also becoming concerned about her health. He remarked a number of times that Laura “really needs to lower her stress levels.”
I know I was annoying Laura by constantly urging her to slow down. She would often shoot back with “You’re one to talk. You travel as much, if not more, than I do.” While this was true, I wasn’t managing a department simultaneously, and I rarely got sick on the road. Plus, she was my little sister, and looking out for her was the role I’d always played.
After three days of filming in Yanji and its outlying villages, the three of us, along with our guide, went to a café to discuss our next day’s filming plans. It was 9:00 p.m. and we’d just finished interviewing a defector in a small town close to the North Korean and Russian borders. Signs for restaurants and shops were written in all three languages: Chinese, Russian, and Korean. We passed a row of brothels disguised as massage parlors and could see groups of young women waiting inside rooms that were dimly lit with red light bulbs.
I was exhausted. When we landed in the region a week earlier, we hadn’t allowed any time to get over the jet lag of a sixteen-hour flight and the sixteen-hour time difference. But it wasn’t the lack of sleep that was getting to me. I was feeling emotionally drained from hearing the harrowing life stories of the defectors we’d met. I hoped that our report would bring greater attention to their plight.
Inside the smoke-filled café, we talked about going to the Tumen River, which forms the border between North Korea and China in this region. Days before, we’d filmed at the bridge in the city of Tumen, one of the official border crossings. But North Korean citizens don’t have the luxury of simply walking across the overpass if they want to visit China. They cannot freely leave the country, and traveling abroad is reserved for the highly elite, who must obtain special clearance from the government. Defectors must take a different path if they want to get to China, traversing the waters separating the two countries. We wanted to film at the river to document this well-used trafficking route, one that in the wintertime is frozen, making it easier for defectors to cross. I thought about Ji-Yong’s story and how she, like so many other North Korean defectors, had braved the ice-cold waters to escape their country’s poverty, only to end up being used and exploited.
Throughout the night, our guide had been getting calls on his black cell phone. He had two phones, one black and one pink. He claimed the black one was used to communicate with his contacts in North Korea. He said he’d been talking to an officer in the North Korean military and was trying to determine if any defectors were crossing over and if we might be able to interview them. He also suggested the possibility of chatting with a North Korean border guard while standing on the frozen river. He said he had taken journalists to the area before, and they had been able to make small talk with some of the lackadaisical soldiers.
We wanted to get closer to a part of the Tumen River where defectors typically cross, so late that night we drove about an hour to the city of Tumen. We checked into a hotel and planned to head to the river the next morning before sunrise. We didn’t intend on staying at the river long because we wanted to get back to Yanji to catch an afternoon flight south to Shenyang, where we would continue on with our shooting schedule.
I looked out the window of my room at the Tumen Hotel and could see the twinkling lights from a North Korean village off in the distance. We’d been told that at different times, the whole area across the border goes pitch-black from electricity shortages. An hour later, I peered out the window again and could not spot a single light on the other side. Satellite images of the Korean peninsula at night paint a stark picture of a brightly illuminated South Korea compared with the North, which is bathed in utter darkness. It’s as if a child had taken a black marker to the upper half of the peninsula.
I set my iPod to wake me up at 4:00 a.m. It was already 1:00 a.m. by the time I got into bed. I figured I’d plow through on little sleep until we were on our flight later that afternoon, when I could take a nap. By 4:15 a.m., the time our team had arranged to meet, I was in the lobby. After about five minutes of waiting groggily, I decided to knock on everyone’s doors to roust the group. Our guide had been adamant about our filming early because he figured there would be fewer people around. I rapped on Mitch’s door; he was gathering his belongings. But when I knocked on Euna’s and our guide’s doors, no one answered in either room. I began pounding on Euna’s door and shouting out her name. Confused and worried, I went down to the lobby and had the woman at the front desk call her room. After several rings, Euna finally picked up. She explained that she and the guide had gone out to the river to try to get some evening shots. They had been out late, which is why they overslept. She called the guide’s room to wake him up. We were out the door of the hotel fifteen minutes later.
On our way to the river, our guide, who lived in the area, stopped off at his home to pick up a warmer jacket. The morning chill was numbing. I had on multiple layers of clothing under the coat Lisa had loaned me, along with a thick scarf and gloves. Despite the weight, I was glad to have on my sheepskin-lined leather boots. Our guide emerged wearing a long black coat. At first I didn’t notice anything odd about the jacket, but when he turned away from me I spotted the word police written in English on the back. A badge on the sleeve revealed what appeared to be a Chinese police patch. I felt slightly uneasy with his disguising himself as a cop, but I figured he’d done this before and knew what he was doing. I took his attire to be a precautionary measure, one that he had used on previous excursions to the river with media to better avoid detection.
As we drove to the river, our guide told Euna in Korean that he had decided to go to a different location than the one he had previously mapped out. There was a spot a little farther down the way that he thought would be better for us to film. I didn’t think much of this change in plans. The guide was from the area and knew the vicinity well. Foreign journalists place a lot of trust in their local fixers or guides, and I didn’t feel any reason to question his decision.
Minutes later our car pulled off the pavement onto a dirt path. Our guide drove through large patches of dried grass and weeds until coming to a stop within the brush.
The river wasn’t immediately within sight when we got out of the car. We had to walk through the grass and over a small mound of dirt to reach it. The sun was just beginning to peek through a thin layer of fog as we made our way toward to border. The only noise was from our own footsteps and breath. When we arrived at the river’s edge, we saw that it was frozen. That’s what we were hoping for. Knowing that many defectors attempt to cross the border in the winter months so they can walk across the ice rather than navigate through the rushing waters, we too intended to set foot on the frozen river to give our audience a glimpse into this world.
Our guide made his way onto the ice and we followed. When I placed my boot onto the frozen river, the sound of crackling ice sent chills throughout my body. Though the temperature outside was bitterly cold, spring was settling over the region, and parts of the river snapped under my feet. I feared the ice was not too far from breaking. I began to tiptoe ever so carefully, feeling the crunch of icicles with each step. I held my breath, somehow convincing myself that this made me feel lighter. As Euna followed me on the ice, she began filming the area with her digital video camera. Mitch pointed his camera at me as I narrated where we were. I motioned toward North Korea on the other side of the narrow river. From here, I could see why the area has become a popular crossing point—the width of the river seemed to be the length of an Olympic-size pool.
Our guide then let me hold his black cell phone, the one he used for smuggling operations. I explained how smugglers like him call their North Korean connections and do business. Euna asked me to walk along the ice so that she could get some shots of me. I proceeded cautiously, walking parallel to the riverbank. Until this point, I never thought I would be setting foot on North Korean soil. There wasn’t a single sign or fence to indicate the international border, but we knew North Korea was on the other side of the river.
Our guide began walking across the ice toward North Korea while making several low-pitched hooting sounds. His actions startled me at first, but I assumed he was trying to make contact with the border guards he knew. He continued walking and motioned for us to follow him. We did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side. Off in the distance was a small village, which our guide explained was where the North Koreans wait to be smuggled into China.
I was nervous. I could tell we all were. We’d never planned on crossing the border, and just as it began to sink in that we were actually in North Korean territory, we knew we needed to leave. We weren’t on the edge of the riverbank for more than a minute before we turned around and headed back across the ice to China.
Midway across the river, I heard yelling coming from downstream. I looked in that direction and saw two North Korean soldiers sprinting toward us with rifles in their hands. Immediately I felt a wave of panic and started running. I no longer cared that the ice might rupture. I just wanted to get away fast. When I was just two steps from the riverbank on the Chinese side, the ice cracked below my left boot causing it to slip into the frigid water. Fearing I might sink to my death, I quickly threw my body onto Chinese soil, pulled my leg free, and continued to run.
I turned to see how far away the soldiers were and determine if they were going to chase us after we reached China. Euna and our guide were about eight yards behind me, with the soldiers closing in on them. Mitch, an avid runner, was around six yards ahead of me. I remembered that I still had on the wireless lavalier microphone and that Mitch could hear me through his headphones.
“Mitch, keep filming,” I said as I continued to run.
If we were apprehended, I wanted him to have it on tape that we had been taken in Chinese territory. Mitch turned back toward me, pointed the camera in my direction, and then disappeared over a small hill.
With each step, my foot that had fallen into the cracked ice felt heavier and heavier, like a weight pulling me into the ground. “Run, Laura, keep going,” I said to myself. But as in a dream when the force of the world seems to be pinning you down, I found myself falling, unable to budge.
“Euna, I can’t move,” I said to her as she approached.
She stopped beside me and knelt down to help. Seconds later the two soldiers were on us, with their guns pointed. To this day, I live with the guilt of wondering if Euna would have been able to outrun the guards had she not stopped for me.
Our guide, who had been able to elude the guards as they encircled us, walked back cautiously in our direction, but not close enough for the soldiers to reach him. He told Euna to take out some money, which she did, and offer it to one of the guards. Pausing for half a second, the soldier next to Euna seemed to consider taking the few hundred Chinese yuan, the equivalent of about one hundred U.S. dollars, but his comrade standing above me would not be persuaded.
“Take me instead,” our guide pleaded in Korean. But when the soldier tried to reach for him, the guide dashed off. The soldier next to me grabbed my bag and noticed Euna’s small video camera, which I had been trying to cover with my leg. The red record light was on.
“Please, please, please,” I called out in English. “We’re sorry. We’re foreigners.”
I knew they couldn’t understand a word I was saying, but I was hoping they would sense an innocence in my tone and feel sympathetic. Furious, the guard holding Euna grabbed her camera and backpack and told us to get up and walk.
“They want us to go across the river,” Euna translated.
“Euna,” I said nervously, “tell them that I want to walk, but I can’t because my foot is numb from falling into the water.”
Though I still had feeling in my foot, I began to hit my boot so it would appear that my leg was truly immovable. I was trying to buy as much time on Chinese soil as possible. I figured that as long as we were in China and not on the North Korean side, we might have a chance.
The soldiers were intent on taking us across the river and began pulling us toward the ice. We frantically tried to cling to bushes, the ground, anything that would keep us in Chinese territory, but we were no match for the angry soldiers. The one guard standing above me was particularly ferocious. His grip was strong and his eyes piercing. To let me know he was serious, he kicked my jaw and shoulder with his heavy black boot and then delivered another crushing blow to my shoulder. I felt my neck snap from the first kick, and my whole body went numb from the second one.
Before we knew it, the soldiers were dragging us back onto the frozen river. Euna and I scrambled to grab each other. Not wanting to be separated, we grasped each other’s hands. The soldiers violently ripped us apart and continued to haul us across the ice.
I tried to make the weight of my body as heavy as possible as I lay there on the frozen river. The soldier who was dragging me by one of my arms looked down at me with a fiery intensity, his eyes burning with determination.
“Please, please, we’re sorry,” I yelled, hoping some Chinese border guards might hear the commotion and come to our rescue. “Mitch!” I screamed, wondering if he was still within radio frequency and could hear my voice. “Help us. I think we’re going to die.”
I saw the soldier’s boot coming for me again, this time pounding the right side of my face. I could feel my body writhing from the pain.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” I screamed, looking up into the soldier’s cold eyes. Seething with anger, he raised his rifle. I froze in terror. This could be the end, I thought. In a flash, he struck the butt of the gun down against my head. Immediately, I fell into a daze.
I’m not sure when I regained consciousness, but when I did, I found myself walking behind Euna on the top of a hill above the river, heading into a tunnel. My head was still in a fog. How did I get here? Was this really happening? The air was cold, crisp, and dead silent. Light emerged as we left the darkness of the tunnel and descended onto a small army post. I remembered the microphone that was clipped to my scarf. Fearing the soldiers might think I was transmitting messages back to the United States, I subtly pulled the wire down through my sweater and tucked the microphone into my pocket.
We were taken into a small room, where the guards handed over our belongings to a commanding officer. We were then escorted back outside and made to wait. The post was little more than a dirt clearing, where I assumed military training took place. Several curious, wide-eyed soldiers surrounded us. In any other situation, I might have attempted to make a friendly connection by offering a smile or “hello” in Korean. For the past decade, I’d worked in dozens of countries, many of which have poor relations with the United States, yet I have always been able to establish cordial, sometimes even warm connections with the people. But this wasn’t just any foreign country. So little is known about what actually goes on in North Korea. The only thing that became immediately clear to me was the deep-rooted hatred North Korea’s government has for the United States. I had to remind myself that as an American, I was the enemy.
I looked down at the ground, trying to seem meek and respectful. It was as if I had entered a parallel universe. Would I ever se eor hear from my family again? I wondered. Could this be my last day alive? The combination of fear and sadness engulfed me and made me tremble.
After a ten-minute wait, we were led out of the post. The same two border guards who had apprehended us held our wrists tightly as another soldier led the way. We followed a narrow trail through dry grassland. Along the path, we saw a couple of men who looked like poor farmers or peasants. They were at least a full head shorter than me and emaciated. Their skin was dark and weathered. I could tell they were curious about us, but they averted their eyes as we passed. My heart sank with each step as we headed farther and farther inland, away from China and the outside world.
At 10:00 p.m. the night before Laura was to leave, she phoned me to see if she could borrow my light Patagonia shell jacket.
“Do you realize how cold it is where you’re going?” I pressed.
“There’s no way that jacket is going to keep you warm enough.”
Growing up in California, we always underestimate how severe temperatures can be elsewhere and inevitably underpack or bring inappropriate attire.
“Well, I can’t find my black coat, so I don’t have anything else,” Laura replied.
“Baby, you can’t be dealing with this at the last minute,” I said.
“What time is your flight tomorrow?”
“The cab’s picking me up at ten in the morning,” she answered.
“Shit. Okay. I’ll bring you my big brown parka,” I said.
I woke up extra early the next morning to fight the stop-and-rarely-go 405 freeway traffic and make it from Santa Monica to Laura’s house in the valley in time.
When I got there, my sister was scurrying around the house that she and Iain had been living in for less than four months. They had gotten married nearly five years ago, but they’d been together for twelve. They had been saving to buy their first home for a long time. Our parents have always been thrifty, so frugality was ingrained in us. Laura was stressed about having just ordered some custom-designed pillows that cost more than she knew she should spend. But Iain encouraged her to go for it; he wanted her to have whatever made her happy. In the midst of her frenzied packing, Laura sat down on the couch and looked at me with serious eyes.
“Li, Iain and I have just starting trying to have a baby,” she confided.
I was so happy for her. She went on to say that she had recently stopped taking her ulcer medication so that she could try to conceive. Iain had wanted to start a family for a while. No one was better with kids than my brother-in-law; they just flocked to him. He would allow friends’ children to chase him around the pool over and over again to the point of dizziness. We’d all get tired just watching them, but Iain had endless energy. Though he loved playing with friends’ kids, he wanted children of his own. But being ten years younger than him, Laura just hadn’t been ready.
When I had first heard how much older Iain was than Laura, I immediately opposed their relationship.
“Are you crazy? Thirty-one?” I exclaimed. “That’s way too old. You’re only twenty-one.”
“He looks so young, Li, you wouldn’t believe it,” Laura said, trying to convince me, “and plus, I really like him.”
“Baby,” I urged, “you have to be careful of guys like that. They just want to mess around.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
That was the fall of 1997, and Laura was a student at UCLA. While she dated here and there, she had never had a serious boyfriend before. I used to worry that she might not ever find someone, because she had never really expressed an interest in anyone. Or maybe it was just because she had never told me about it. Laura and I never kept secrets from each other, but I was always very protective of her—perhaps overly so. In hindsight, I probably wasn’t ready for my little sister to start dating. As a girl, I had more crushes that I can recall. Much to my embarrassment, I was named “biggest flirt” in my middle school yearbook. I had already had a lot of experiences, and I didn’t want Laura to get distracted by the boy craziness that had struck me long ago. She never would.
Iain is boyishly handsome, and many say he looks like the actor Michael Vartan with a touch of Hugh Grant. He is a rare combination of brainiac financial quant and British surfer dude. I always tease him about his recreational reading, which ranges from esoteric books about calculable formulations to ones about mathematical models. Although he could be categorized as a bona fide nerd, Iain has never lacked admirers of different ages and genders. But the most striking of his characteristics is his gentle demeanor. In more than a decade of knowing him, I have never seen Iain get angry—not once, ever.
He has a soft-spoken, kind way about him, but he’s stoic and never particularly emotional—except when it comes to Laura. Their love is that of storybooks—it’s the only way I can describe it. After many years, a lot of relationships grow stagnant and stale—but not my sister and Iain’s. On many occasions I’ve caught Iain stroking her hair or rubbing her back during periods of stress. His obvious adoration of my sister and hers for him has never waned, even in the slightest.
Laura and Iain married in June 2006, seven years after they met. I had to share my best friend, but there was no one I’d rather share her with. During my maid-of-honor champagne toast at their wedding, I closed by saying, “Baby Girl, I may have been the flirt, but you got the boy.”
After about fifteen minutes of walking along a dirt trail with the North Korean soldiers, we arrived at a second army post. It must have been no later than 7:00 a.m. It was hard to believe that the day was just beginning. This facility was slightly larger than the previous location but rudimentary all the same. While Euna was taken into a room to talk to the officer in charge, I was led through the dim sleeping quarters, which contained half a dozen metal bunk beds with thin, stained mattresses, to a small washroom. There was no sink, just a large bucket of water. On a ledge sat a couple of used, brown-stained toothbrushes. A soldier handed me a dirty rag and motioned for me to clean my face.
I hadn’t thought about my injury or appearance since that moment on the ice. I touched the side of my face; my jaw was tender. It hurt to open my mouth. Dried blood from the gash on my head had caused a large chunk of hair to stick together and harden against my skin. It was difficult to peel away the hair to inspect the actual injury. I winced in pain as my fingers touched the bloody lesion for the first time. Not wanting to infect the wound with the grimy towel, I lightly wiped my face, steering clear of the injury.
I was then led into the room with Euna and the officer. There were no signs of technology, no electronic equipment, not even electricity for that matter. Euna spoke Korean to the officer in charge, telling him we were university students working on a documentary about the border region. She told him we had made an innocent mistake. I asked Euna to convey to the man that we were very sorry and ask if he could please take us to the official bridge over the river between North Korea and China so we could walk back to China. I didn’t think they would, but hoped there might be a slight chance they would send us back over the bridge so the Chinese authorities could deal with us.
“Tell him we’re sorry and that we could pay a fine if necessary for any inconvenience we’ve caused,” I added.
We were made to wait outside. Euna was shivering. Her pants were soaking wet. This was the first time I noticed that she didn’t have her jacket. She quietly told me she had purposely tossed her coat while we were attempting to flee on the Chinese side. She had her cell phone inside the pocket and didn’t want the North Koreans to get any of the numbers that were on it. I wrapped my coat around her and tried to warm her legs by rubbing them and gently massaging them. I had a small package of trail mix in my pocket and encouraged Euna to eat some to keep up her strength. I nibbled on a few cashews and tried to remain calm.
Moments later the officer returned and in Korean explained that they would take us to the bridge. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Were they really letting us go? He looked me over and ordered a soldier to bring me a rag to wash the blood off my parka. I took this as a good sign, thinking they didn’t want the Chinese authorities to see that I’d been beaten on Chinese soil. He looked at my head and inspected my face. Fearing I hadn’t cleaned myself up well enough, I had Euna tell him that there was a hat in my bag, which I could put on to look more presentable. He allowed me to retrieve the white wool cap, which I put on to his satisfaction. The officer seemed trustworthy; there was a kindness in his eyes. But I was still skeptical of his intentions.
A soldier on an old military motorcycle with a sidecar approached, and we were told to get in. We were given our belongings. Wanting to hold the officer to his word, I asked Euna to see if the man could accompany us. He said it wasn’t possible, that he needed to stay at the post.
“Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly. “You’ll be fine.”
“Thank you, thank you,” I replied in Korean.
Another soldier hopped on the back of the rickety motorcycle, and the driver tried to start the engine. I looked around the dusty base. There were no other vehicles in sight. This dilapidated motorcycle appeared to be the only transportation available. Three or four attempts later and the cycle finally began to roar. We were off. Euna was sitting in the front of the sidecar. I curled up behind her, bracing myself against the brisk morning air.
For the next fifteen minutes, we continued down a bumpy dirt road, rarely seeing any other vehicles. We passed a small village consisting of simple adobe buildings. There were a few people riding bicycles, but most were walking. Despite the frigid weather, the villagers were not wearing heavy overcoats. They had on simple dark, drab garments, which matched their gloomy expressions.
I wasn’t sure of our location, but it seemed we were headed in the opposite direction of the Tumen Bridge that links North Korea and China. Still, my instincts told me we were traveling parallel to the river, which gave me some relief. I figured they must be taking us to a different, closer border crossing. A military truck approached us, and someone inside motioned for our driver to stop. Their conversation was inaudible, but thankfully, we were soon on the road again.
Suddenly we made a left turn, heading away from the river. This is when I knew immediately we were not going back to China. I grabbed Euna’s shoulders, rubbing them as if to warm her, but hoping she would take this as a signal that something was very wrong. We ascended a path and pulled into a larger military base.
We were ushered into an empty room where three officials were waiting. We all sat on the linoleum floor, which was slightly heated by an underground wood- or coal-fired furnace. This was the first time we’d experienced any kind of warmth, and I pressed my hands to the floor to restore the feeling in my fingers.
The officers proceeded to look through all our belongings, showing particular interest in our equipment and money. I handed over the microphone I’d been keeping in my pocket. We had roughly three thousand dollars in our possession, consisting of South Korean, Chinese, and U.S. currency. At each place where we were held, the officers had counted our money and noted how much of each type of currency we had. Here, they meticulously counted the cash again. I suspected they wanted to make sure no money was missing or had changed hands from location to location. They leafed through our passports, pausing to look at each of the dozens of visas in my booklet.
“Why do you have so many visas?” asked one of the officers.
“My family really likes to travel,” I replied nervously with Euna translating. He didn’t seem convinced.
Another officer picked up the receiver from a telephone that was on the floor in a corner and tried to place a call. This was the first bit of technology I had seen in the three different locations in which we’d been held. To his frustration, there was no connection. He tapped on the receiver button repeatedly but was unsuccessful. I wondered if he was trying to contact higher authorities or officials in the capital, Pyongyang. The out-of-date-looking telephone and lack of connection seemed to be signs that we probably didn’t need to worry about the room being bugged or electronically monitored. I wanted to be with Euna alone so we could speak more freely and figure out a plan.
So far, Euna had informed the officers that we were students working on a documentary project about the border and trade between China and North Korea. We knew the issue we were really covering, North Korean defectors escaping from their country’s poverty and brutal government, was particularly sensitive and that the missionary groups that had been aiding us were not liked by the North Korean regime. I began to think about what evidence we had that might compromise our sources and interview subjects, or reveal what our true purpose was in the region.
An officer pulled out the digital still camera that was in my bag. He handed it to me and asked me to show him the photos. I remembered the pictures of North Korean women defectors I had taken. One was of a girl who had fled from North Korea and was lured into the online sex industry in China before being smuggled into South Korea by missionaries. The other was of a woman who had been forced to marry a poor farmer in China. While that photo only showed the back of the woman’s head, I didn’t want to take any chances. I nervously deleted these pictures before showing the officer some of the benign ones, such as me enjoying a traditional Korean meal in Seoul.
We were then taken to another building. But before we left the first facility, we were blindfolded with two bandanas I had in my bag. I’d become accustomed to carrying bandanas on my trips because of their versatility—they can be used as handkerchiefs, hair wraps, or protective cloths. Now my own bandanas were being used to keep me prisoner.
Two female soldiers led us across a courtyard. As we stumbled from one building to the next, I could hear military drills being conducted nearby. The sounds of boots marching to a beat and the cadence of the soldiers’ voices sent my heart thumping with trepidation.
Our blindfolds were removed after we entered a room much like the previous one. We were told that someone was coming to take us to another base. Now that it was clear we were leaving these officers’ jurisdiction, the air seemed to become a little more relaxed, and for a brief period we were left alone with our belongings. With soldiers right outside our door, we scrambled nervously to destroy whatever evidence we thought might get our sources, interview subjects, and us in trouble.
I told Euna I had deleted some pictures from my camera.
“What should I do with my videotapes?” Euna asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, trying to recall what was on the tapes.
Two of them contained an interview I had conducted with a recent North Korean defector. He, unlike the women we’d spoken to, had fled because he was upset with North Korea’s political system. While Euna’s tapes did not reveal the man’s identity because she had only filmed the lower part of his body, the types of questions I had asked him could be quite damaging to our situation. Euna proceeded to rip the ribbons on the tapes so they would not be viewable.
I had a small notebook, and several of the pages inside contained interview questions for Pastor Chun Ki-Won and a professor in Seoul, two men whose work is considered subversive by the North Korean government. I carefully ripped the pages out of the notebook. Euna told me to give her a page. She crumpled up the paper and put it in her mouth, chewing and swallowing. I followed her lead. Fearing I might exacerbate my recurring ulcer, I ripped the other page up into small pieces and put it in my pocket. Later on, I asked a guard if I could use the toilet, which was an outhouse on a raised platform. I wrapped the small bits of notes in a sheet of toilet paper and dropped it into the trough below.
In the time remaining, Euna and I discussed how we would continue on with our tale about being students. We decided we would tell the authorities we were graduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles, film department, and that Mitch Koss was our professor. So far, we hadn’t met a single person who spoke English. We were far from the capital, and I hoped it would be difficult to get a translator and that they would allow us to remain together. That way, we could keep our stories straight.
The day was far from over, but already it seemed like the longest one of my life. My head was pulsating. I was so fatigued that my worries and nervousness subsided. All I wanted was sleep. I closed my eyes for a brief moment, before forcing myself awake. I became concerned that because of my injury, if I dozed off, I might fall into a state of unconsciousness. I pinched myself to stay alert. I tried to comfort Euna by telling her we would be okay, that North Korea had more to gain by keeping us alive than dead. I told her I didn’t think we’d be sent to jail, but would probably be placed under some sort of house arrest. A few hours later these words would come back to haunt me.
So far, the people we’d encountered had seemed suspicious of us but relatively compassionate. I feared being moved to another location where the people might not be as kind. As dusk approached, new authorities arrived to transport us to another facility. By this time, we were supposed to have been on an airplane heading to another Chinese city. Instead we were prisoners inside North Korea.
We were blindfolded again, handcuffed, and crammed in the backseat of an SUV between two officials. We were told to look down and not to speak with one another. Silence ensued. We traveled over bumpy terrain for what seemed like thirty minutes before arriving at the place where we would end up being interrogated and held for the next three nights. Euna was taken out of the car first. We’d been together all day, able to console and confide in each other. Now we were separated, and a sense of anxiety rushed over me. A soldier removed my handcuffs, pushed my head down, and led me into the building.
We’d been transported to a jail. Before entering the building, the soldier motioned for me to take off my shoes. He then unlocked a door that led into a small, dim area that housed a row of four cramped cells. The soldier removed a heavy lock from one of cells, opened the door, and directed me into the dismal five-by-six-foot chamber. The deep echo of the door shutting and the lock clashing up against it made my skin crawl. Rather than having metal bars that allow one to see into each cell, these chambers were fashioned with heavy metal doors. There were two postcard-size slots in each door, one at the top for a guard to look through, and one at the bottom through which a small bowl of food could be placed. If the slots were closed, the room was pitch-black. Fortunately, a sliver of light entered my cell through an opening in the upper slot, and I could make out a thin pallet of wood on the concrete floor along with a pillow and two blankets. I sat down, buried my face in my hands, and began to sob.
I thought of Lisa, my parents, and my husband, Iain, and the horror they must be feeling not knowing where I was or if I was even alive. While in Seoul and China, I had managed to speak with Iain via webcam. But the time of our usual chat sessions had long passed. He must know that something was wrong.