Friday, February 1, 2013

Somewhere Inside

Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home,
by Laura Ling and Lisa Ling

This is the first book I've read since my surgery that has really compelled me. Any story about or by sisters always interests me, and this one--about Asia--did in particular.

As you might recall, Laura Ling was captured with her colleague, Euna Lee, and imprisoned in North Korea from March to August 2009. They worked for Current TV (cofounded by Al Gore) and were making a documentary about North Korean defectors who escaped into China, some of whom ended up in forced marriages or sex trafficking. They traveled into China on tourist visas instead of admitting they were journalists because they were not going to be portraying either China or North Korea in glowing terms. They hired a guide to take them to the Chinese-North Korean border, and one morning the guide encouraged them to go onto the frozen river that serves as the boundary between the countries. They followed him, and they came to regret it. Although they went back into China, guards from North Korea pursued them and captured them.

For five months, they were interrogated about their intentions and actions and kept isolated from one another. At the same time, Laura's sister Lisa (who works for Oprah and used to appear on "The View") took advantage of her media and government connections and did everything she could to get her sister out of North Korea. She was in contact with Al Gore, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Oprah Winfrey, the U.S. State Department, and media and entertainment celebrities. At one point, Michael Jackson even offered to perform for Kim Jong Il (if it would help), right before he died so suddenly.

It's clear that Laura Ling had powerful people working for her, trying to get her out. If her sister hadn't used all her connections and if she hadn't been working for Al Gore's company, who knows whether they would have been able get former president Bill Clinton to make a visit to Pyongyang to retrieve her and Euna Lee (who had left a 5-year-old daughter at home in the U.S.).

Clearly, they made an error in judgment by taking the risk to cross into North Korea...whether they were persuaded to take the risk by their guide or not. But that doesn't detract from this story.

I was touched by the very close relationship between the sisters, who are best friends. I cried several times, as I did again when watching the video of Laura Ling's speech as she got off the airplane in Burbank, California. I'm always deeply affected by stories of sisters being separated or reunited.

I also found it touching to read about the relationships she developed with some of her guards, translators, and even her primary interrogator. Even though she was being held in captivity, she was treated well for the most part. Even though the North Koreans felt angry at the United States, most of them did not treat her unkindly.

It's clear, as is mentioned in the epilogue, that many political prisoners do not have the resources Laura Ling and Euna Lee had...working incessantly to free them. But evident in the book, too, is Laura Ling's keen intelligence and political and media savvy. She handled the imprisonment professionally, wisely, and diplomatically, in spite of her own health problems and severe stress.

Here's an extensive Fresh Air interview with the Ling sisters, as well as the trailer of the book:

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