Nearly six years after her captivity under North Korean government in 2009, award-winning journalist and Sacramento native Laura Ling is set to speak at Davis Senior High School (DHS) on Feb. 21 as part of the event, An Evening with Laura Ling: Journey of Hope.
Ling, who plans on discussing her experience in captivity and issues relating to human rights, will follow her speaking with a signing of her New York Times bestselling book Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home, which she co-wrote with her sister and fellow journalist Lisa Ling. MUSE got a chance to speak with Ling this past week.
MUSE: For those who may not be familiar with your experience in North Korea in 2009, can you just talk a little bit about what happened?
Ling: I was there working on a story about the trafficking of North Koreans, specifically women who are being trafficked or smuggled out of the desperate conditions in North Korea. What I found was that many of these women end up in a different kind of situation that is quite dire. Some are placed in the prostitution industry, others are forced into marriages. I was working on the trafficking of North Korean women and that was when, while we were filming along the Chinese/North Korean border, I was apprehended by North Korean soldiers along with my colleague Euna Lee. We were taken into North Korea and held there for nearly 5 months. It was the most frightening time of my life. I was trapped in what’s considered the most isolated country in the world with no communication with my family. Just living with the constant fear of not knowing what was going to happen and if I would ever see my family again. It was very stressful; very scary, but it was also, I guess a test of my own strength. I found ways to maintain hope in different strengths within myself that I didn’t know existed.
MUSE: How do you think that this experience shaped you both as a journalist and as a human being?
Ling: It really has changed everything in my life. In terms of my personal life, it’s the relationships with my family and my friends that I value even more. The fact that I have two kids now, I consider it a blessing and a miracle. I cherish every second that I have with my family. Professionally, I do believe that stories like this and other stories about humanitarian issues and crises that are happening around the world really need to be told. But having said that, with two small children now and given what happened to me, I am a little bit more hesitant to go out there overseas and do that kind of reporting. It’s been a conflict for me because as passionate as I am about reporting on these very critical issues, I do approach things with a lot more caution.
MUSE: Your event is titled “Journey of Hope.” I’m wondering how did you come up with that title and how does it relate to the message you want to convey?
Ling: It’s called “Journey of Hope” because not only in my experience was I able to maintain hope, but I’ve found that in these stories that I’ve covered around the world, whether it be women’s rights in the middle east or monks protesting for greater freedom in Myanmar, in some of those darkest situations, there are glimmers of hope and signs of humanity. I have been able to see those rays of hope in my reporting and was able to feel that personally. So I hope to share some of those stories with the audience in Davis and hopefully compel them to maintain hope and to value the freedom that so many of us take for granted.
MUSE: At the speaking, you’ll be signing copies of your book Somewhere Inside, which you co-wrote with your sister Lisa Ling. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
Ling: The decision to write the book was not an easy one because I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to share my story, but it was a very therapeutic and cathartic experience to write that book and to write it with my sister who is my best friend. The book is about not only the story I was working on, my time in captivity, but also about the diplomatic efforts to get us home and the geopolitical situations at the time. And that’s why I wanted to write about it with my sister because she was able to tell that other side of the story. Everything that was happening when I was held in captivity. It’s also a book about sisters and sisterhood and the power of sisterhood. It’s a very special experience to write that.
MUSE: I understand that you were raised in Carmichael in Sacramento County, which isn’t too far from Davis. I’m wondering if it’s special to speak at an event that is so close to your hometown.
Ling: While I was in captivity, there were several vigils that were held for us. And the very first vigil was one that was held at my high school. I can’t tell you how touched I was to know that people who I grew up with in my hometown and teachers and friends and total strangers from Sacramento had come out to lend their support and to help get our story out there. I often thought about those vigils and the vigils were one of the things that allowed me to maintain hope. So being able to speak in the Sacramento-Davis area is very special. It means a lot to me to be so close to home and be able to thank people who came out to that vigil.
MUSE: This event is at a high school and Davis is a college town, so I’m wondering what message do you want to get across to students and young people?
Ling: A lot of the things that I try to impress upon young people is to get outside of your comfort zone and if you get a chance – travel. I know that my experience of reporting and traveling around the world has changed me and shaped me as a person. I think it’s easy for us as young people to take our freedoms for granted and I really hope that we can all cherish our freedom and look at our liberties not just as a right, but also as a responsibility. What can we really do with our freedom to create a meaningful impact around the world or in our own backyard?
“Journey of Hope” will begin at 5 p.m. on Feb. 21 at DHS’ Brunelle Performing Arts Center. The event is free, however, donations are welcome to fund the Davis High School Symphony.
Photo by Courtesy