I try to recall the media furor over the captivity of Laura Ling and Euna Lee last year but I can’t really separate in my mind “actual” coverage by mainstream news and the re-coverage and opinion by bloggers. I followed Angry Asian Man and he echoes a lot of Asian-American-related news for his readers’ benefit and this news story just didn’t go away. Then the highest levels of American government finally got involved and it was finally all over mainstream American news.
I don’t suppose many people knew who Laura Ling is before this occurred but far more people were familiar with Lisa Ling be it from The View, as is my case, or now as an exclusive correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show. I’ve been fascinated by Lisa Ling since her days on The View–she is one of the several influences that convinced me to name my daughter Lisa, should I have one–and I know that Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home, the story as told by her and involving her closest friend and sister, would be one that captivated me.
I don’t quite know what I expected other than an account of the events and, as the book jacket described, that Laura and Lisa’s voices and version of the events would be interleaved.
Of course, the sisters’ biographical backgrounds were provided so we know what kind of family they came from and why they are as close as sisters can be, a short sketch of their parents’ and grandparents’ immigration story, and the story of how Laura met her husband to put into context the touching things he did for the wife he missed so much. It really touched me when Lisa looked on on Laura’s husband and learned more about him through the trial, bringing the family even closer.
In a casual, story telling way, with a lot of concern and pride for each other, the sisters write about each other’s past assignments that bring them to the present day (2009) . Both of their past experiences have coincidentally included stories they covered in North Korea. They have amazing experiences to tell and have amassed between them many powerful contacts who would later come to their aid. Their adventurous and inquisitive spirits are exhilerating.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, as everyone knows, were caught after crossing the China-North Korea border and then detained for five months. Then begin the closest look at North Korean, the most secretive country in the world, I’ve ever had the pleasure to have. What does it take to be The Most Secretive Nation in the World when cell phone technology and Internet connections threaten to blow the lid off things? And can we even imagine how it feels inside? Laura had the “privilege” of experiencing both the North Korean legal and medical systems in her five month captivity. She was sympathetic to the human plight and genuinely became friends with her guards and interrogators; interestingly, her capture was such a sensitive subject in NK that the interrogator who questioned her daily and her around-the-clock guards were required to stay in the compound and were kind of captives with her. The two female guards she befriended and the interrogator’s way of softening towards her were very heartening, reminding you of the humanity of the people.
All the while becoming tentative friends with her captors, Laura came to realize that the interrogator was a mouthpiece for his superiors who represented the highest levels of the government. The information he allowed her then had to be conveyed by Laura in the infrequent phone calls she was permitted with her sister. Meanwhile, after the affront the NK government believed to be done to them with the journalists crossing over and making a documentary of their defectors, Lisa and her family knew they had to be extra respectful in their word choice. The letters and dialogue from the American end might sound really simplistic but were loaded with meaning. It was kind of chilling and numbed your senses to know how dangerous the dance was for Laura with her interrogator who ultimately taught her to help herself. Meanwhile, Lisa kind of represented the United States but what pressure it was to speak on behalf of a western superpower! Regular people would have succumbed and wasted the 15-minute phone calls sobbing about missing each other and crying with dismay at being captive. Given all the effort occurring on the Ling side and there was absolutely no communication between the captives, I wondered if Euna didn’t just cry on her phone calls. Laura’s strength was apparent from making the most of every minute she did have contact with Euna to being the one who maneuvers to touch despondent Euna when seeing her for the first time in months.
“It sounded so simple, and if we’d been discussing almost any other country, this ‘talking’ could definitely have been achievable. But North Korea’s government had chosen the path of isolation–even from its closest ally, China. It had stopped communicating with everyone. So why had they let Laura call me? Were the country’s leaders now talking through Laura?”
The sisters explain how the lack of media coverage was not a matter of neglect but their express wish from the beginning, knowing they are dealing with an unpredictable country in North Korea. That is the impressive influence the Ling sisters and their loyal associates have, for example, to ask National Geographic immediately pull evidence of Lisa Ling’s controversial medical documentary in North Korea a few years before. Conversely, when Laura got out the message the North Korean government wanted to be addressed directly and felt disrespected that the U.S. government and media were not making a fuss, Lisa made the media blitz happen. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an apology for the girls, Lisa could directly ask that CNN blast it every 20 minutes so CNN-watching Kim Jong Il would surely see it. In one strategic, fell swoop, America finally got to see the families behind Laura and Euna, they heard the strangely respectful and diplomatic pleas for the girls’ release, North Korea felt it got face and its chance to appear humanitarian.
Had nothing happened to the girls in North Korea, I would not have watched their documentary, just another one in the great pool of insightful films, when I am not much of a documentary-watcher. Since reading Somewhere Inside, I have become more aware while also empathetic to North Korea’s struggle to maintain order. It puts things like recent FIFA investigation into the North Korean World Cup team into some context.
I think at the heart of it, it is a snapshot of two sisters at a most critical point in their lives and that resonates with me because I am an older sister of a sister. Other than interspersed remarks throughout the novel, the following excerpt from Lisa’s chapter hit homes with me about growing up in two-sister household, especially when I am also an older sister:
“I suppose I deserved to be disciplined for stealing the car at age fifteen and hiding Dad’s beers in my dresser drawers. Growing up in a community [Sacramento] with few Asian and being the older sibling, I always neded to feel that I fit in. At school, I was more concerned with popularity than geometry, and that was clear in my grades. I just didn’t care much; I wanted to have fun…. My efforts at becoming popular were fairly successful. I was determined to transcend the fact that I had slanted eyes and that our house always smelled like Chinese food.”
You learn a lot about Laura and Lisa Ling: Lisa was the way she was so Laura was the was she was to complement it. I can understand as an older sister.