Journalist Laura Ling has spent her career serving as a window for readers into dangerous situations, including government oppression in Myanmar and the inner workings of Mexico’s drug war.
On March 17, 2009, Ling became the story when North Korean military officers detained her on the job.
Ling and Current TV colleague Euna Lee traveled to China in 2009 to shoot a documentary on North Korean defectors — people who flee the secluded Asian country to seek a better life in China. During their time along the Chinese-North Korean border, the pair’s guide beckoned them to cross to the North Korean side for some footage, and they followed.
“We were standing on the frozen ice, it wasn’t our plan to cross into North Korea,” said Ling, who shared her story at the Texas Union on Tuesday. “It was about halfway across the ice that North Korean soldiers came at us with guns and started running.”
Ling said the soldiers beat her and dragged her across the soil. Ling saw the soldier raise his rifle to strike and thought it was the end of her life. She blacked out and when she woke up, she was in custody. Ling spent 140 days in captivity in North Korea and was released after former President Bill Clinton negotiated an agreement with dictator Kim Jong-il. She was initially sentenced to 12 years in prison — two for trespassing and 10 for threatening to overthrow the North Korean government.
In an interview with The Daily Texan, Ling said people in North Korea grow up believing the United States is the enemy because North Koreans do not know what is happening outside their borders. Similarities between American and North Koreans still exist, she said.
“The people there are people just like us, and I felt like I did connect with them on a very human level,” Ling said. “I hope I opened their eyes to the fact that we as Americans are just like them in many ways.”
Journalism professor Tracy Dahlby, who has worked in Asia, said North Korea is difficult for the media to cover. Independent and freelance reporters who may not have a large institutional media organization behind them need additional support while they are reporting, he said.
“If you work for The New York Times, you can be fairly confident that if you get in trouble, someone’s going to come looking after you,” Dalhby said. “If you’re out there on your own, it may be a little grittier.”
Biology senior Jane Shin said she attended the event to hear Ling’s personal story. Shin, a South Korean native, followed Ling’s story through the local media and read her book on the ordeal, “Somewhere Inside,” last semester.
“I was really concerned that two American journalists were stuck in North Korea simply because they tried to show what this regime is doing,” Shin said.
Ling currently works as a domestic correspondent for E! News and has worked on segments on teen suicide and the struggles of military families. The roughly 100 audience members applauded Ling’s passion for journalism and journalists reporting in the dangerous situations of the world.
“There are too many people living in this world as caged birds, where criticizing their own country could land them in prison or where they don’t have the right to vote,” Ling said. “I urge you all to cherish the freedom you have and be a voice for those who need one.”