'The World Is Bigger Now: An American Journalist's Release from Captivity in North Korea' by Euna Lee with Lisa Dickey (Broadway Books: 305 pp., $25.)
On March 17, 2009, Euna Lee, a journalist working in China on a documentary about North Korean defectors and her colleague, Laura Ling, were chased by soldiers and, according to Lee, dragged across the border into North Korea. They were arrested for "committing hostilities against the Korean nation," and imprisoned for 140 days.
Their arrests came against the backdrop of North Korea's testing of a nuclear missile raising tensions on the Korean penninsula and concern in Washington. Following a trial in May, they were sentenced to twelve years in a North Korean labor camp. On Aug. 4, former President Bill Clinton, after persuading President Kim Jong-il to grant a special pardon for the journalists, flew them home to Los Angeles.
When the dust settled, after the women were safely home, questions surfaced about the reporters. This was Lee's first foreign assignment. Was she adequately prepared? Is the risk taken by so-called vanguard journalists to get the stories that bigger, heavier, more established media outlets can't or don't get worth the risk?
In "The World Is Bigger Now," Lee tells her story: how in a single moment she went from beng a "free woman, a TV editor shooting a story on my very first overseas assignment," a chance she had sought for years, to being one of two "prisoners, bruised and battered — and scared." Her surprise indicates that she had perhaps not adequately thought through the consequences of her assignment. Nothing prepared her for that moment when she was captured on the frozen Tumen River that separates China from North Korea.
Nor had she thought through the consequences for her sources in China: A pastor who provides safe, secret homes for refugee children and another source who helps North Korean women forced into the sex trade reported that their work and the people they sought to protect were threatened by the North Koreans after Euna and Laura were captured.
Lee was born in South Korea. She studied documentary film making and came to San Francisco in 1996 at 23 to study more and learn about editing. "We were taught in school that North Koreans were bad people and their government was evil. I had never considered the fact that we were all fellow Koreans," she recalled in the book. In 2005, she was hired part time by Current TV, a network with an audience of primarily 18-to-34-year-olds funded by former Vice President Al Gore. In 2007, she moved to L.A. with her husband, Michael, and her 2-year-old daughter, Hana.
"The World Is Bigger Now" movingly describes Lee's guilt as a mother with a career. She regrets the times she put her career before her daughter or her husband or allowed herself to be distracted. Lee and her husband are practicing Christians — they go to church, they pray, they are part of a larger Christian community that sent letters and prayed for her and were a source of comfort to Michael and Hana in those long months. "I was obsessed with the idea that I needed to be a better person, that I had been following the wrong priorities for too long." One wishes, in moments like this, that guilt and self blame were not such an intrinsic element of Christian faith.
Euna and Laura may have been naïve but journalists still do their real work in the field. Within hours of their capture, they had swallowed pieces of paper from Laura's notebook that revealed sources and erased film under the pretext of showing the curious North Korean soldiers how the cameras worked. Looking back, she remembers instincts she had about their guide — the fear that he might betray them. Laura, whose own book on the ordeal, "Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home," was published earlier this year, had slightly more experience. She had worked on projects in Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines and will debut Wednesday as the new face of "E! Investigates" on E! Entertainment.
There are things Euna wishes that she had done differently: confessions she was forced to make, anger at Laura encouraged by her interrogators after the two were separated, and many other decisions she was simply too tired and disoriented to make. Her strength is remarkable. She chastises herself for crying during a meeting with the Swedish ambassador. She is able, in the first phone call after several months, to put on a cheerful voice for her daughter, then 4.
In the end, Euna Lee forgives the North Koreans, her chief interrogator, even the two soldiers who, according to a December, 2009, New York Times story, were rewarded for capturing the two women with special leave and other awards. It is not clear, from this remarkable account, that she was able to forgive herself for wanting to get "the story."
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.