University of Delaware
Laura Ling discusses her career and what she learned from her imprisonment in North Korea.

Hope and gratitude

Journalist Laura Ling recounts lessons from North Korean imprisonment


1:32 p.m., March 12, 2015--Six years ago this month, journalist Laura Ling stood next to an ice-covered river that formed the border between China and North Korea, working with a cameraman to get video footage for a report she and her team were doing about human trafficking there.

Then, at the encouragement of a local assistant, she took a fateful step onto the ice, crossing into North Korean territory and soon finding herself looking down the barrel of a soldier’s gun. She and her colleague Euna Lee would spend the next 140 days as prisoners in the harsh and secretive totalitarian nation.

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“It was the most terrifying time of my life,” she told an audience at the University of Delaware on Wednesday, March 11, where she was the keynote speaker in a three-day campus celebration to honor the Delaware Women’s College Centennial and UD women for the past 100 years. “I thought I might never see my family again.”

But she titled her talk “A Journey of Hope” and told the crowd in Gore Recital Hall that she made a decision while in prison — separated from Lee and interrogated and threatened throughout her months in captivity — to practice “acts of gratitude.” 

Every day, she said, she found something for which to be grateful, even if it was as small as seeing a butterfly from her cell window or being given three, rather than one, meager meals that day.

After she and Lee gained their freedom, through an improbable visit to North Korea by former President Bill Clinton, she has continued the daily exercise of giving thanks. 

The experience, she said, helped shape a new documentary series on Discovery Digital Networks called Rituals, in which people are interviewed about the daily routines they use to overcome adversity.

Ling continues to report on issues that are important to her, including the dangers faced by journalists around the world.

“Journalists know that certain stories entail risk,” she said. “Anything can happen once you’re in the field. … In that moment on the ice, I relied on my instincts, and my instincts failed me.”

She also described for the audience some of her darkest moments while in prison, particularly after she and Lee were tried, convicted and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. 

As she sobbed afterward in her cell, she said, one of her guards told her, “Laura, always have hope.” Ling said that comment, from a woman who had previously been cold and threatening to her, made her feel that a shared humanity can transcend differences when people interact on a personal level.

In captivity, she said, she regretted not having spent more time with family, but “I also felt glad that I had followed my passion trying to shine light on important issues” through her reporting.

During her career, Ling has reported from dozens of countries, covering such subjects as slave labor in the Brazilian Amazon, Mexico’s drug war, Internet censorship in China and women’s rights in Turkey. 

She has won numerous awards, including several Emmy nominations, and is the co-author, with her sister and fellow journalist Lisa Ling, of the book Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home.

About UD’s Celebration of Excellence

The three-day Celebration of Excellence is part of a yearlong series of activities that began in fall 2014, including an event highlighting the history of Warner Hall, student-produced blogs, displays throughout the academic year and the Department of Women and Gender Studies colloquium.

The celebration began Tuesday, March 10, with a roundtable discussion modeling the television show The View in which select faculty members and students spoke about issues relevant to women in the world and on UD’s campus.  

It concludes Thursday, March 12, with the annual Women of Promise Dinner, which is designed to promote positive mentoring relationships between faculty and students. Women faculty members select exceptional women undergraduate and graduate students to accompany them to the dinner to honor their accomplishments and to encourage them to continue their success. 

Article by Ann Manser

Photo by Wenbo Fan

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