“Somewhere Inside” by Laura and Lisa Ling

After reading Euna Lee’s The World Is Bigger Now, I thought it would be appropriate to read Laura Ling‘s account of her parallel experience as a journalist in captivity in North Korea. Laura Ling’s book, Somewhere Inside, is co-written with her sister Lisa Ling in order to show both Laura’s experience in captivity and Lisa’s experience at trying to help her obtain freedom. The authors take turns telling their perspective on the story and each section is woven together in a way that is not too confusing for the reader, despite the constant back and forth.

While being held captive and not knowing her future for such a long time, Laura Ling’s account is of course personal in nature but much less so than that of Euna Lee. This is because Laura had a very different experience than Euna due to her sister’s, Lisa’s, contacts in the United States. In the communication-vaccum that is U.S.-DPRK relations, the Laura-Lisa connection became the primary way that Pyongyang communicated what it wanted from Washington in order to release the journalists.  In this sense, Laura’s book certainly supports some of the findings in Robert Egan’s Eating with the Enemy, particularly the concept that Pyongyang tries to communicate with the United States through somewhat unconventional channels.

Laura’s book also describes the criminal proceedings and the disposition of the court in a bit more detail than Euna. However, it is clear that it does not provide nearly the level of detail that it could have. There must be some cautious reason for Laura’s not divulging more about this process.

One thing I did think was funny, was the spelling of Korean names. There’s a point at which one of the guards that was watching Laura during her captivity changes names entirely from Kyung-hee to Hyung-hee and then back again. Though this hardly presents a problem to the reader, I didn’t really expect to encounter such a basic editor’s error.

Comparatively speaking, if I had to choose which account I preferred best from Euna Lee and Laura Ling’s books I would have to choose the latter. The reason is that Euna Lee’s book is much more personal and, for some reason, she seems to have been kept in the dark regarding the political process that surrounded her captivity, while Laura was more privy. In addition, her sister Lisa’s perspective helped to explain much more tangibly the way that the entire fiasco unfolded and was eventually resolved. All in all, I think I learned more form Somewhere Inside.

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“The World Is Bigger Now” by Euna Lee

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.