Oprah vs. Juche: Reviewing the Ling/Lee Memoirs
Oprah vs. Juche: Reviewing the Ling/Lee Memoirs
by Adam Cathcart and Brian Gleason 
Ling, Laura and Lisa. Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
Lee, Euna with Lisa Dickey. The World Is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.
On the early morning of March 17, 2009, two American journalists were filming along the Tumen River, the frozen boundary demarcating the border between North Korea and China. Laura Ling and Euna Lee had travelled all the way to this outpost in search of narratives of North Korean refugees and sex workers in northeast China. “Exhilarated,” Euna Lee said, by “the sight of the underground railroad by which thousands of North Koreans have been smuggled into China in a desperate quest for freedom,” the journalists made the regrettable decision to cross into North Korean territory, and were promptly captured by North Korean border guards. After a day in a detention facility near the Chinese border, the women were driven over some very rough roads to Pyongyang, where they were held for nearly three months, given some lessons in how the North Korean state sees the world, were judged by a DPRK court, and promptly released into the custody of Bill Clinton after a dramatic flight by the former President to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il personally and bring the hostages home.
Reporters or Refugees at Risk? | After five months in custody, Laura Ling and Euna Lee returned from their emotional journey to an array of supporters and critics, who offered widely differing interpretations of their ordeal. In one sense, it was a chance for the old DNC wing of the Democratic Party to show itself again: the episode featured cameos by Al Gore and Bill Richardson, and had ample reminders of the missed opportunity in US-DPRK relations in 2000. The Bill Clinton angle had only heightened interest; Larry King and the various cable news empires ate it up as compelling news. Anderson Cooper mugged for cameras; Laura Ling and her more famous sister were ultimately on Oprah hawking their jointly-written memoir about the experience.
However, amidst the sympathetic outpouring from family, friends and supporters, human rights activists and other individuals intimately involved in helping North Korean refugees criticized the two journalists — and Current TV producer Mitch Koss, who escaped the North Korean border guards, was deported from China, and promptly disappeared — for irresponsibly putting themselves and others at risk.
And indeed, their arrest represented a gold mine for the North Korean authorities – detailed information about refugee networks in Northeast China, not to mention two valuable hostages. No wonder that in the first one hundred pages of her book, Euna Lee is quite busy describing, again and again, how the journalists tried to destroy their videotapes, miraculously were left alone with their digital camera and furiously deleted more pictures, and subsequently ate their interview notes, which the North Korean border guards had somehow left in their possession. However implausible these acts might seem, at the end of the day, even Ling and Lee do not deny that their video camera and the footage inside was confiscated by the North Korean authorities.
This handing over of evidence directly to North Korean security agencies proved to have extremely negative consequences for human rights activists in Northeast China. The most extreme example was Reverend Lee Chan-woo, a South Korean pastor who looked after the children of North Korean refugee mothers lured by human traffickers and sold to Chinese men. Ling and Lee had filmed some of the children in Reverend Lee’s shelter, and four days after their arrest, the Chinese authorities – certainly acting on communications from North Korean counterparts — raided Reverend Lee’s home, interrogating him due to footage seized from the American journalists. Reverend Lee was deported from the PRC in early April and his secret shelters for North Korean refugee children were shut down.
As reports emerged that other North Korean refugees and activists were also compromised, the reaction among many human rights advocates – particularly in South Korea – became increasingly critical. Thus, many expected Laura and Euna’s books to address these criticisms and provide more insight into the lives of the people they originally sought to document. Although the authors’ books intended to complete their original report on North Korean refugees in China, they unfortunately fall far short.
What – and Who – is the Story? | There’s a general sense among many North Korean refugees that too many people seeking to meet or interview them are primarily motivated by a desire to hear their “amazing stories” rather than by a genuine desire to engage them on an interpersonal level or to help them improve their lives. The North Korean stories are subsequently relegated to mere entertainment value instead of being appreciated for their intrinsic value.
Euna Lee and the Ling sisters purportedly attempted to “shed light on an incredibly important story” along the Sino-North Korean border, but in the final analysis, all of the authors use their unfortunate situation to elevate themselves and tell their own “amazing story” while ignoring the larger issues at hand.
These books are all about “me” – how terrible life was for me during this situation, my past life, my family life, and even what I was doing when something important happened (television addict Lisa Ling has no compunctions about describing how she was watching Iron Chef or the Hangover when news arrived from North Korea). Within the first few chapters of Somewhere Inside and The World is Bigger Now, it becomes clear that the books focus more on the authors’ personal lives than on their original subjects. Almost immediately, we learn that Euna’s husband has a “winning personality,” Laura’s husband Iain is “boyishly handsome” and that Lisa was named the “biggest flirt” in middle school.
Even after the her sister’s arrest in North Korea, Lisa Ling’s sections of the double memoir are more focused on how she plans to get on TV via her various friends in Hollywood. One short anecdote about a failed plan to get Michael Jackson to travel to Pyongyang to perform for Kim Jong-il is risible and tangentially interesting, but also representative of where the discussion is focused. Amid the media sideshow in the US and chapter after chapter of what amounts to self-pity from the women under house arrest in Pyongyang, information about the numerous issues pertaining to North Korean refugees in China is conspicuously absent.
As page after page is filled with superfluous details about the authors and their families, the books fail to provide a broader context on the perilous lives of the North Korean refugees. Little wonder, then, that Ling and Lee continue to invite criticism from North Korean defectors like Joo Sung-ha, who urges them to “shed their martyrdom image.”
North Korean Women in China | In the mid to late 1990s, North Korea’s economy began to rapidly deteriorate due to economic inefficiency, drought, famine and a variety of other factors. Women were laid off in droves, but ironically, they became the primary breadwinners of the family because men were still bound to uphold their jobs within the failing state-run economic sectors. The Public Distribution System broke down, and since many of the men did not receive regular wages, women began to engage in market activity and border crossings into China to feed themselves and their families. This in part accounts for the gender imbalance of the North Korean refugees in China – an estimated 80% are women.
According to numerous Trafficking in Persons Reports by the U.S. State Department, North Korean women have continuously been deceived or driven by necessity into arranged marriages and sex industries in China due to the dire economic conditions in North Korea. On the Chinese side, the high demand for North Korean women is not only driven by the stark gender imbalance due to the preference for male offspring – as the authors point out – but also by China’s modernization, which sees more and more women leave rural areas like Yanbian for better pay in the urban industrial sectors. Accordingly, the Chinese State Council estimates that millions of bachelors in its rural provinces have difficulty finding a spouse – driving up the demand, and the price, for North Korean brides.
In light of this discomforting economic reality, many North Korean women voluntarily enter the Chinese bride market in “live in” arrangements, where they receive financial compensation as well as a reduced risk of getting arrested by the police for illegally entering China. Some of these women are simultaneously married to Chinese men and their original North Korean husbands, underscoring the emotional hardship that they endure as they try to alleviate their families’ poverty.
Recently, even the Global Times, a state-run foreign affairs tabloid in Beijing, raised the prospect of North Korean women being sent into arranged marriages in China, raising the equally disturbing concept that the North Korean state is angling in on this problem mainly in order for the DPRK to gather foreign exchange.
Fixers take a bite out of funds exchanged with foreign journalists for getting defectors to do interviews. Illegal cell phone bills levied along the border for people in North Korea who wish to call family members outside are murderously high. Parents of North Korean defectors in China call their kids demanding money, because they think it’s easy to get hard currency there – this is the flip side of making the leap into the cauldron of would-be wealth and struggle that is China.
Refugees: Politically Inert, or Ready to Rock the Chains? | If funds are not the ultimate goal, though, what is? Are North Korean refugees all ready to turn around armed with new ideology to overthrow the Kim regime? Put another way, are refugees just the tip of the iceberg of a “silent majority” of angry, anti-regime North Koreans who will soon create a political sea change in the DPRK?
Surprisingly, Ling and Lee’s books testify for the opposite conclusion: most of the time, refugees are examples of political inertia. The life experiences of the refugees center around the dominance of the state, even as the state breaks down; almost never are they narratives of anti-regime mobilization and agitation. The system still generates the requisite amounts of respect and fear.
North Korean refugees do not take their sojourn in China as a platform to attack the government in Pyongyang. To the contrary, they mostly appear to be uninterested in overthrowing the North Korean system. As Euna Lee described talking to the North Korean wife of a Chinese farmer: “The interesting thing was that this woman had no real opinion about politics or government. She had nothing bad to say about the regime in North Korea” (62).
If the North Koreans they meet indicate or have a lack of politics projected onto them by the authors, the work also makes clear how focused the DPRK is on the defector issue. North Korean guards as well as judges in Pyongyang are highly fluent with information environment outside the DPRK about the defector issue. Euna Lee is questioned during the trial about her viewing of the movie Seoul Train, which she had used to brush up on the issue of North Korean refugees. Lisa Ling’s 2007 “undercover” reporting from the North Korea for National Geographic was raised at numerous points as proof that the Ling sisters were bent on besmirching the DPRK. In reviewing her undestroyed and confiscated interview videos, one North Korean interrogator becomes enraged at Laura Ling’s expressed curiosity toward one relatively new political defector (he had spent 2 months in China) regarding the possibility of internal resistance movements. The North’s own extended version of the defector saga in China does, perhaps surprisingly, mention the perils of sex trafficking, but it should be no surprise that the same saga ends with an explicit embrace of Kim family rule.
Conclusion | Ultimately, instead of a reasoned and well-documented (and even emotionally satisfying) text about the problems encountered by North Korean women, these books, particularly the Ling sister double memoir , indulge in blatant hucksterism and corporate sponsorships, questionable stories about teaching North Korean women yoga in secret (115) , reading Glamour magazine with North Korean soldiers (142-43), Adam Sandler references (114), juvenile tattoo designs (133), canned Maya Angelou references to pacify Oprah (134), pregnancy fantasies (77) , Laura Ling’s love life, Sleeping Beauty analysis of the trial verdict (Lee p. 211), Oprah references (43), and sentences by Lisa Ling such as “sometimes late at night, I’d post on Facebook or Twitter ‘I miss her’.” (All page numbers Lisa/Laura Ling).
In some ways, the very notion of citizen journalism is what got them into trouble. There is an assumption of total tabula rasa by both reporter and viewer. In literally every single interview, every turn on a road “somewhere near Yanji” is a revelation. The group was in China for four days total for their research on site. When Lee shares her moment of research enlightenment, of having her eyes opened to the gravity of the topic, of course it is helpful for empathetic readers who are also being introduced to the topic via her writing.
However, the approach overall is not illuminating for the viewer. None of us are truly tabula rasa. It is disingenuous, at least, for these two reporters, as a Korean American and Chinese American in particular, to act as though they have no deeper knowledge of the risks they are incurring to themselves, the people in their crew, and the people they are filming.
However, as Bruce Cumings says, there is a point in time that needs to arrive when the problem is not always novel. After all, Euna Lee and Laura Ling were at the center of one of the key events surrounding North Korea, the refugee issue, and regional diplomacy in 2009. While their story is novel, the problems they were ultimately dealing with have a history and a context which deserves fuller explanation.
 A modified and illustrated version of this review is forthcoming in Korean Quarterly. Thanks is extended by the authors to KQ’s editors, Stephen Wunrow and Martha Vickery, for their support of the work and for comments on the essay.