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Hostages of the Hermit Kingdom

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two American journalists released last month after being imprisoned in North Korea, tell their story -- and remind people of the story they wanted to cover.

September 01, 2009|By Laura Ling and Euna Lee

We arrived at the frozen river separating China and North Korea at 5 o'clock on the morning of March 17. The air was crisp and still, and there was no one else in sight. As the sun appeared over the horizon, our guide stepped onto the ice. We followed him.

We had traveled to the area to document a grim story of human trafficking for Current TV. During the previous week, we had met and interviewed several North Korean defectors -- women who had fled poverty and repression in their homeland, only to find themselves living in a bleak limbo in China. Some had, out of desperation, found work in the online sex industry; others had been forced into arranged marriages.

Now our guide, a Korean Chinese man who often worked for foreign journalists, had brought us to the Tumen River to document a well-used trafficking route and chronicle how the smuggling operations worked.

There were no signs marking the international border, no fences, no barbed wire. But we knew our guide was taking us closer to the North Korean side of the river. As he walked, he began making deep, low hooting sounds, which we assumed was his way of making contact with North Korean border guards he knew. The previous night, he had called his associates in North Korea on a black cellphone he kept for that purpose, trying to arrange an interview for us. He was unsuccessful, but he could, he assured us, show us the no-man's land along the river, where smugglers pay off guards to move human traffic from one country to another.

When we set out, we had no intention of leaving China, but when our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river, we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side. He pointed out a small village in the distance where he told us that North Koreans waited in safe houses to be smuggled into China via a well-established network that has escorted tens of thousands across the porous border.

Feeling nervous about where we were, we quickly turned back toward China. Midway across the ice, we heard yelling. We looked back and saw two North Korean soldiers with rifles running toward us. Instinctively, we ran.

We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us. Producer Mitch Koss and our guide were both able to outrun the border guards. We were not. We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained.

Over the next 140 days, we were moved to Pyongyang, isolated from one another, repeatedly interrogated and eventually put on trial and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

During our time in captivity, and in the weeks since we returned, there has been speculation about what we were doing in that part of the world and about what happened on the morning of the 17th. After arriving home, we were disoriented, overwhelmed and not ready to talk about the experience. There are things that are still too painful to revisit, but we do want to explain what took us to northeastern China and the circumstances of our arrest.

Our motivations for covering this story were many. First and foremost, we believe that journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored. One of us, Euna, is a devout Christian whose faith infused her interest in the story. The other, Laura, has reported on the exploitation of women around the world for years. We wanted to raise awareness about the harsh reality facing these North Korean defectors who, because of their illegal status in China, live in terror of being sent back to their homeland.

In researching the story, we sought help from several activists and missionaries who operate in the region. Our main contact was the Seoul-based Rev. Chun Ki-won, a well-known figure in the world of North Korean defectors. Chun and his network have helped smuggle hundreds of North Koreans out of China and into countries -- including the U.S. -- where they can start new lives. He introduced us to our guide and gave us a cellphone to use in China, telephone numbers to reach his associates and specific instructions on how to contact them. We carefully followed his directions so as to not endanger anyone in this underground world.

Because these defectors live in fear of being repatriated to North Korea, we took extreme caution to ensure that the people we interviewed and their locations were not identifiable. We met with defectors away from their actual places of work or residence. We avoided filming the faces of defectors so as not to reveal their identities. The exception was one woman who allowed us to film her profile.

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