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The World Is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea by Euna Lee with Lisa Dickey

World Is Bigger Now by Euna Lee on BookDragonIn 2009, journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling made headlines around the world, first for being kidnapped by North Korean border guards, then five months later being miraculously released. Such international reverberating news usually begets a book – in this case, two: both Lee and Ling released memoirs in 2010, four months apart. Ling’s, titled Somewhere Inside and written with her older sister Lisa Ling, hit shelves in May 2010. Lee’s followed in September. Both, understandably, tell a similar story and yet both are markedly different from the other: Lee’s is the more personal, emotionally raw, journal-like narrative; Ling’s offers further journalistic context and coverage, dovetailing Ling’s North Korean imprisonment with sister Lisa’s Stateside reactions and machinations to bring the women home. 

In the fall of 2008, Lee joined Current TV, the Al Gore co-founded channel that shut down in 2013When Lee was assigned to work on a documentary featuring North Korean defectors for the Vanguard series, she was convinced she had landed her dream job. “This was a my chance to make a difference, to help the people whose stories had moved me so much.”

In early March 2009, Lee and her colleagues Mitch Koss and Laura Ling arrived in Seoul, South Korea. By Friday, March 13th, they landed in Yanji, a northeast city in China less than 20 miles from the North Korean border. “Yanji was the perfect place to seek out defectors and get footage of the Tumen River flowing between the two countries. The work we’d do [there] would make or break our documentary, and we were eager to get started.” Led to the frozen Tumen by a hired local guide on March 17, the foursome were chased by two armed North Korean soldiers. Koss was the first to outrun the soldiers. Ling fell and injured her leg; Lee refused to leave her even as the guide yanked at her with shouts of, “‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’” When all three were caught, the guide attempted to convince the soldiers to take only him. When they refused, the guide succeeded in getting away. Lee and Ling were now prisoners of the world’s most hermetic country.

For the majority of their five-month captivity, Lee and Ling were kept separated, adding to the an already terrifying situation. For the Korean-born Lee, sharing ancestral history and speaking the same language as her captors proved both demoralizing and comforting. While she was repeatedly condemned for “betraying [her] Korean blood,” she could at least communicate with the unrelenting stream of soldiers, guards, interrogators, prosecutors. Subjected to the same grinding questions about her and Ling’s intentions, pitted against Ling for the ‘right’ answers, paralyzed by the all-too-real threat of inhumane labor camps and even the possibility of execution, Lee managed to hang on to her sanity through her faith in God and her family.

Five thousands away in California, she knew her husband Michael and their young daughter Hana were waiting, praying. Beyond the seemingly impossible distance, her mind and heart remained constantly connected; every day at 1:00 pm North Korean time/9:00 pm Pacific Standard Time, she recited Hana’s favorite bedtime story aloud from memory “as if Hana were right beside me.” Through her despair, moments of brief connection with her captors gave her strength. In spite of her wavering, she believed in their shared humanity. And, somehow she never stopped hoping.  

The extensive news reports provide the details of what happened. Lee’s and Ling’s memoirs reveal the heart of soul of their experiences, of grieving and doubting, of agonizing and faltering … and ultimately of enduring and surviving to finally return safely home.

Readers: Adult 

Published: 2010

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