Euna Lee knew she was in trouble – real trouble – when the North Korean soldiers moved her from the border with China to Pyongyang. She and her colleague, Laura Ling, had been held at an army base for three days of interrogation. But now they were being taken deep inside the North Korean state.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m not going home. This is further from home. Something’s going to be really bad,’” she says.
This was 2009, nine years before a U.S. President and North Korean absolute ruler would meet at a summit in Singapore. Relations between the two nations were at a low point in a history of low relations, and there was no official means of communication between Washington and Pyongyang.
Lee is now an executive producer for VOA Korean TV, and Ling has worked on a variety of projects at Current TV and the Discovery Networks. Ling was born in the US, while Lee was born in Korea before moving to the U.S. and becoming an American citizen.
But in 2009, Lee and Ling were working together in China on a documentary for Current TV on human trafficking and North Korean refugees.
“North Koreans, especially females, when they escape North Korea for China, they become victims of human trafficking,” Lee said. “People will sell these people to internet sex workers, or [to become a] Chinese farmer’s wife. Because of their condition, they don’t have a voice [and can’t] ask for help, so we wanted to shed light on those women’s situations.”
One day late in March, Lee and Ling, accompanied by their producer/cameraman and local Chinese fixer, began to walk across the Tumen River bridge connecting the two nations in the far upper northwest. The bridge was used by a few North Koreans to work in a joint economic project in China, and used even less by Chinese nationals.
But Lee says locals would occasionally meet at the middle of the bridge to talk and exchange cigarettes.
“The reason I didn’t really worry when I was arrested at first…it’s because our fixer had a contact, an officer on the North Korean side. He actually talked to him on the phone the day before,” Lee recounts.
“We heard many stories about journalists going to that border, and they talk to North Korean soldiers, smoking together.”
But this was not to be one of those encounters. Lee’s cameraman pointed across to North Korea and yelled “Soldiers!” When the team looked up to see two uniformed and armed soldiers running across the bridge, they immediately ran back to try and make it to China. Cameraman Mitch Koss and their Chinese fixer made it; Lee and Ling did not.
“My colleague Laura Ling fell in front of me and I stopped. She says, ‘Euna I can’t feel my legs!’” says Lee. “I couldn’t leave her there alone. So I was standing there and didn’t know what to do. Lift her? Drag her? And in a second, in a flash, we were apprehended.”
As the soldiers began dragging the two into North Korean territory, Lee says she began screaming for help and grabbing at anything she could to keep herself from being pulled any further. “At some point I thought ‘OK, he’s not going to give up’ so I told him ‘OK, I’ll get up, I’ll walk with you.’ So we crossed the river and arrived at … the army base.”
The two were kept in separate but adjacent cells for three days and interrogated day and night. Food was minimal, and bright lights always kept on. Lee knew well the stories of abuse that prisoners in North Korea could expect, but fortunately for her and her colleague, they were spared physical torture.
Lee is Korean-born and fluent in the language, but Ling was not, so officials called in a local English teacher to try and, unsuccessfully, translate. Only then were they moved; they weren’t told where they were being taken, but it turned out to be a Pyongyang courtroom and detention facility.
“We were worried, because we were in enemy hands, but we were hopeful we could talk our way out of this situation. But that was very naïve,” Lee says.
Now began a month-long, non-stop interrogation by officials. For six days a week, eight hours a day, each was asked a range of questions; very often the same questions again and again. Her captors wanted to know everything: where was she born, where did she live, how long had they been in China, and who was helping them. Lee describes the process as psychological abuse rather than what she feared – physical torture.
“I’m a journalist, and you have to protect your sources,” Lee says. “So that was very difficult. Somehow I couldn’t really remember the details, maybe because I was in shock, but I was very thankful because what if they forced me, physically harmed me to say something. But I couldn’t really remember the details at the time.”
Unknown to the two, there were now unconfirmed news reports and Ling and Lee were being held by North Korea; for its part, the secretive state remained silent. Frantic diplomatic negotiations got under way out of public view, complicated by the fact that the U.S. and North Korea had no diplomatic relations – and still don’t.
Then one day – neither can recall the specific date – they were told they would go on trial the next day for illegal entry and non-specific “hostile acts.” Lee’s guards asked if she wanted an attorney.
“I thought, one day before the trial, what can he do to help me? And what can he do in that country where everything’s controlled? So I told him I will defend myself.”
By her own admission, it did not go well.
“They were biting [at] me. I couldn’t say a word; I was mumbling, nothing was organized, my thoughts were crazy,” Lee recalls. “And at the court, everybody – judges, prosecutor – they were so angry at me, really angry because I’m Korean-born, so they thought I was the worst person.”
Both were sentenced to 12 years at hard labor, but fortunately they were never transferred to the prison camp. In June of 2009, Pyongyang announced the sentences, and U.S. pressure to release the two grew. Meanwhile, Lee and Ling sat in their solitary prison cells, not sure of what might happen next.
“I’m very thankful that they did not move us to a hard labor camp, but that was under discussion,” Lee says. “They fed me three times a day, Korean meal, very very simple meal. Rice or soup … sometimes on certain anniversaries, I think it was their former leader’s birthday, they brought a little bit better food.
“But at the time I thought about their own citizens, when they’re detained they’re really treated badly. I was thinking this is a thousand times better than what North Koreans are actually going through in prison.”
Eventually the diplomatic efforts, capped by an unannounced trip to Pyongyang by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, paid off. On August 5th, then-leader Kim Jong-il pardoned the two journalists and released them from prison; they began their trip home the same day.
If her 140-day detention was miserable, Lee says her return home was “surreal.”
“When we were on the plane I called my husband. He told me ‘Are you in the air? No, then call me when you’re in the air.’”
“When I came home, everything was so dusty!” Lee says with a laugh. “A single father raising a child, just four years old, for four months, there was dust everywhere. So the first thing I did was I cleaned the house, every corner. And that’s when I though, OK, I’m home.”
Since their release, North Korea has gone on to detain 14 other Americans, including Otto Warmbier who spent 17 months in a North Korean prison before being returned in a comatose state to the U.S., where shortly after he died.
Lee says certain memories of her detention still bring her to tears.
The documentary was never finished, and it took about seven to eight years she says to get back to what felt like a normal life. She didn’t, and still doesn’t hold any animus toward Mitch Koss who made it to China – “He was fast!” – and says she believes as unpleasant as it was, that things happen for a reason.
“Now I’m with VOA Korean. Ironically, we’re reporting stories for North Korean people. So everything happens for a reason.”