When I was younger, in my days of naivete, I sought out countries that didn’t have diplomatic relations with the US. At just 20 years old, I traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia and just took it for granted that if anything happened to me, the Swiss ambassador would come to my rescue.
So this week when I read Euna Lee’s memoir, The World is Bigger Now (Broadway, 2010), I felt thankful nothing more happened to me back in 1990 than a 30 minute interrogation for entering Vietnam without a visa.
Lee and Current TV colleague Laura Ling traveled to northeast China a couple years ago to work on a documentary about North Korean defectors. To get a better feel for the defectors’ journeys across the Tumen River, the women, their male colleague, and Chinese guide traveled to the Tumen and actually walked across the ice-covered river.
On their way back to the Chinese side of the river, North Korean border guards suddenly chased the four across the river. Even though they’d reached the Chinese side, the North Koreans grabbed Lee and Ling and pulled them back into North Korea.
The women would be detained in North Korea for almost five months. The male colleague and Chinese guide got away.
Although the end wasn’t a surprise, Euna Lee writes a compelling and thrilling account of her imprisonment in North Korea, the bulk of it in Pyongyang. She and Ling were mostly held separate, although kept in the same guest house, and didn’t see each other for two and a half months. Lee tried to keep her Christian faith, but struggled to understand how the North Koreans could sentence a young mother to twelve years of hard labor (and how the US could allow that).
During her stay in North Korea, Lee developed a semblance of friendship with her captor. She was allowed to meet the Swedish ambassador to Pyongyang a few times, her only link to the outside world.
Then one day almost five months after she was abducted, her captor informed her that someone “very important” from the US was on his way to North Korea. Lee wondered who it could be. Jimmy Carter? Bill Richardson? Al Gore? (See a theme here?)
If you followed the story a couple years ago, you’ll know it was Bill Clinton who came to their rescue. The day after they met him in Pyongyang, the women left North Korea with Clinton and landed in Burbank, California after a long flight home via Tokyo.
I wished Lee had described her family’s background (she grew up in Seoul and her family still lived there during her detainment) vis-a-vis North Korea. Had she any family who stayed north after Korea was split into two countries? What did her family think about North Korea? I also hoped she’d write about the colleague who escaped and if she resented his abandonment. Or was she happy he’d been able to get away to inform the folks at Current TV? But we never hear about him again (he’s mentioned briefly in the acknowledgments).
Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating look into North Korea and a heart-wrenching one at that.