I just finished reading The World Is Bigger Now by Euna Lee. It is the memoir of the Korean-American journalist from Current TV who, along with her colleague Laura Ling, was held in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and sentenced for crimes against the DPRK. Lee’s account is highly personal – the relationships that she develops with her captors as well as her own psychological processes are what I found to be the meat of the book.
While Lee and Ling’s precarious film making intended to bring international attention to a plighted population of North Korean refugees, it seems that they were taking their safety and the content of their work for granted. My personal (and possibly unfair, unjust, and callous) opinion of what happened to Lee and Ling is that they could have avoided a lot of the hardship that they encountered if they had spent a greater amount of time studying the nation from which the subjects of their documentary were fleeing rather than just their flight.
Lee’s memoir, however, does reveal something about North Korean people on the whole. She often encounters kind captors and caretakers in her long months waiting for a verdict, waiting for an answer for freedom. People found ways to bend the rules to care for her, despite how it may have harmed themselves. Having read this after Robert Egan’s Eating with the Enemy, it seems to corroborate the idea that North Koreans of a certain political/economic status are well aware of the contradictions in their system of governance and, in fact, have learned well how to operate within those contradictions and manipulate them for the good of themselves and others.
Lee clearly underwent a very difficult experience as a mother being separated from her child. The personal reflections that she has under Pyongyang’s custody seem to say more about herself – Euna Lee – than they speak to the experience of prisoners or the North Korean legal system in general. A reader who’s expecting to learn about the North Korean legal procedure, or hear some sort of commentary on how criminals are processed and crime is defined, will most likely come away from this book with a foggy interpretation. Lee’s experience is very unique because of her background – an American journalist with strong political ties. Consequently, the hardships that she experienced are much less a reflection on those faced by captives in North Korea while more indicative of Lee’s own character.