University News

Writer tells story of captivity in N. Korea

Contributing Writer
Monday, April 9, 2012

When journalist Euna Lee was seized by two North Korean soldiers near the Chinese border in 2009, she remembers telling her captors, “Please don’t kill me.”

Lee and her colleague Laura Ling had gone to China to film a documentary about North Korean refugees for Current TV, a news channel co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, she told about 80 people Saturday in Kassar House’s Foxboro Auditorium during a talk organized by Liberty in North Korea at Brown and the Korean American Students Association. Early in the morning March 17, they went to Tumen River, which separates China from North Korea, to get footage of the routes refugees use to cross the border. Their Korean-Chinese guide motioned for them to follow him.

“I knew it was a risky move, but I was so intent on getting the story out that I did not focus on the danger,” Lee said. She and Ling were crossing back into China, she said, when the two soldiers appeared and captured them. They were ultimately kept as prisoners in North Korea for almost five months, until former President Bill Clinton was able to secure their release Aug. 4, 2009.

Lee focused her talk on what she said was “the purpose to her life” – telling the stories of those who do not have a voice. She spoke at length about the people she interviewed in China for the documentary she was making before her capture but never finished. Many of the North Korean refugees in China are women, she said, because they are the ones being exploited by human traffickers near the border. She said these women are being sold as sex workers or as brides to poor Chinese farmers, who have a hard time finding wives because of China’s gender imbalance.

Lee mentioned one girl she met who was in her early 20s. The girl had decided to leave North Korea for China because she had heard life was better there. But when she arrived, the man who had offered to help her find a job took her to a small room where he made her work in front of a computer, undressing herself for strangers over the Internet. Lee said the story depressed her. “Under different circumstances, she might have been going to school with you guys,” she said. 

The North Korean refugees Lee interviewed are in China illegally, she said, since they are not considered refugees by the Chinese government. She said this made things difficult, since Chinese men often have children with their North Korean brides, but these children are unable to go to school without some kind of parental registration. She added that if the mother is deported, these children are often abandoned by their fathers.

After talking to these refugees, she “felt responsible for telling their true story,” she said. 

For the first three days of their captivity, Lee said she and Ling “still had journalistic spirit.” Since many of the refugees they had interviewed for the documentary still had family in North Korea, they tried to protect their sources by destroying the papers and tapes they had with them. But they were soon moved to Pyongyang, where Lee said she was interrogated for eight hours a day.

Lee said she was often interrogated by the same officer, whom she called “Officer Lee.” He wanted her to admit to being part of a government plot to slander North Korea and seemed to have a hard time understanding she worked for a private company, she said.

“He did not abuse me physically,” Lee said. “But he knew how to threaten me and intimidate me.” She said it was psychologically exhausting going through the interrogations every day, trying to figure out if she had revealed anyone.

Yet Lee was surprisingly good-natured about her captivity. “Even though my time in Pyongyang was so difficult, I didn’t want to hold any bitterness toward the country,” she said.

Lee told stories about little moments of kindness she surprisingly experienced. She said one officer lent his coat to her when it was cold – she had ditched hers earlier because there had been some phone numbers in a pocket. One guard gave her a boiled egg, telling her it was “good nutrition.”

Lee concluded her talk by saying she was grateful for the outcry that followed her capture. “It was important to have people like you keeping our story alive,” she said.

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