In all, they were only knowingly on the North Korean side of the border with China for a single minute, but it was enough for their lives to change forever.
“We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us,” Laura Ling and Euna Lee write in a dramatic account of their capture by North Korean border guards published in the Los Angeles Times. “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.”
The Current TV journalists’ travails became the subject of international furor when Pyongyang announced on March 3 that they had been detained. It took 140 days – and the intervention of former President Bill Clinton – to arrange for their release on Aug. 4, leading to an emotional return to U.S. soil, and their families.
Tricked by their Guide?
Ling and Lee say that the pair had no intention of ever leaving China, but that their guide beckoned them past the middle point of the river that marked the border between China and the so-called Hermit Kingdom, North Korea. The pair had been working on a story about human smuggling between the two countries, and the tide of desperate North Korean women who are increasingly tricked or forced into the sex industry when they make it to China.
“We didn’t spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back, but it is a minute we deeply regret,” they say. “To this day, we still don’t know if we were lured into a trap. In retrospect, the guide behaved oddly, changing our starting point on the river at the last moment and donning a Chinese police overcoat for the crossing.”
As soon as they were in custody, the women’s first priority was protecting their sources. They ate notes and destroyed videotape as soon as they were able. During daily interrogations, they revealed no names. After a three-day show trial whose outcome they never doubted, the women expected to spend the next 12 years in a labor camp.
“We can’t adequately express the emotions surrounding our release,” they write. “One moment, we were preparing to be sent to a labor camp, fearing that we would disappear and never be heard from again; the next we were escorted into a room with President Clinton, who greeted us and told us we were going home.”
But the pair say they’ll bear the psychological scars of their imprisonment for a long time.
“It was ultimately our decision to follow [the guide], and we continue to pay for that decision today with dark memories of our captivity,” they write.
• Laura & Euna are sentenced to 12 years hard labor