As investigative reporters, Oprah Show correspondent Lisa Ling and her younger sister, Laura, dedicate their lives to telling other people's stories. But in the summer of 2009, they found themselves caught in an international firestorm.
On March 17, 2009, Laura and fellow Current TV journalist Euna Lee were taken into custody while covering a story on human trafficking at the border of China and North Korea. "They did set foot on North Korean soil for maybe a minute—at most," Lisa says. "Then they rushed back."
The North Korean government charged Laura and Euna with illegal entry and hostile acts. A secret trial on June 8 found the women guilty and sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor. Imprisoned in one of the most isolated countries in the world, the women were allowed little contact with the outside.
On August 4, 2009, President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea to negotiate Laura and Euna's release. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il issued a pardon, and the women were reunited with their loved ones after 140 days in captivity.
Nearly a month after their release, Laura and Euna wrote about their journalistic mission and their trial and imprisonment in North Korea. Read their statement in the Los Angeles Times. "What happened that day is very complicated," Lisa says.
Lisa says she first learned about her sister's capture in a devastating 2:30 a.m. phone call. "It was my brother-in-law—Laura's husband, Ian. The first words out of his mouth were, 'Laura was abducted by North Korean soldiers,'" she says. "At that moment, I just froze."
For the next four and a half months, Lisa spoke at support rallies to keep Laura and Euna in the headlines, all while hoping to send a message to the North Korean government.
Throughout her sister's imprisonment, Lisa feared a documentary she filmed on North Korea would be used against Laura. "One of my first thoughts was, 'Oh my God, I hope they don't associate me with her.' Because I know that they were very displeased with what I had done there," Lisa says. "It was something that just continued to linger in my mind."
Still, Lisa's family remained optimistic. "We always maintained our hope," she says. "We're just so grateful that they were granted amnesty."
Laura was only allowed four phone calls to her family—and Lisa says they were clearly monitored, even scripted. "Right after the trial, for example, I asked her, 'Have you been moved? Where are you?' And she said, 'The conditions are decent,' in a very sort of robotic way," Lisa says. "She's my best friend, so I know her better than I know myself in many ways. I can tell when she's obviously not being herself."
Still, Laura's personality came through in an emotional letter Lisa received two months after her capture. "I'm so, so scared, and I don't know that I'll ever be able to see you again. I miss you all so much, it hurts," Laura wrote in the letter. "I want my big sister. I'm dreaming about the moment when we will be together again."
Three weeks after Laura and Euna's secret trial, Lisa received a chilling phone call. "[Laura] said: 'Lisa, it's important that you hear this. We broke the law, and our only help is if the United States government asks for amnesty for us,'" Lisa says. "She said that if she is, in fact, sent to a labor camp, that she won't survive."
During one of her few phone calls, Laura told Lisa that President Bill Clinton was the only American the North Korean government would speak with. "I told Vice President [Al] Gore, who is the founder of Current TV," Lisa says. "He called President Clinton right away, and President Clinton, without question, agreed to do it. ... And we are so grateful that he took it on."
Lisa also wants to clarify that President Clinton did not travel as a government official. "President Clinton went as a private citizen. The plane that they flew was donated by a man named Steven Bing," Lisa says. "So this was not a case where taxpayers footed the bill."
Shortly after their homecoming, Laura and Euna thanked Current TV viewers for their support. "It was the toughest time in our lives," Euna says. "Right now, we want to go back to our normal life and spend time with our families."
Lisa says Laura came home a different person. "She's someone who worked herself so ragged that she developed ulcers from stress. She's come back now with such a beautiful appreciation of life," Lisa says. "But there certainly isn't a day that goes by—even now, more than a month since their release—that she isn't thinking about it."
Lisa says Laura also maintains she was treated fairly in detainment. "She actually established some relationships with her immediate captors that were somewhat beautiful. She came to care about them, and they came to care about her," Lisa says. "That really is a testament, I think, to the human spirit."
Throughout the ordeal, Lisa says Euna's husband and 4-year-old daughter, Hana, spent many weekends with her family. The minute Euna stepped off the plane, Lisa says no one was more thrilled than Hana."Hana just became a different child, and she just lit up and was overjoyed."
In the weeks after Euna came home, Lisa says Hana worried her mother would leave again. "I think that she was sort of scolding her cat and saying something along the lines of, 'If you're not good, Mommy may go to work again,'" she says. "But I think that she's gotten a lot better."
One fact Lisa says wasn't widely reported in the coverage of this story was Laura and Euna's sentencing. The women were only sentenced to two years for illegal entry. "The bulk of that sentence [10 years] was for hostile acts—which was journalism," Lisa says. "Thousands of people are fleeing and risking their lives and ending up in China, where they're sold into slavery or forced into marriage. It's a story that neither country is particularly proud of."
Some critics say Laura and Euna were irresponsible and shouldn't have been near the border. As a journalist, Lisa encourages anyone who follows news to consider things from a reporter's perspective. "They never intended to cross the border. So circumstances led to whatever happened that day. Certainly my sister and Euna, it's the biggest mistake they've ever made. But in the course of doing stories, sometimes things arise," Lisa says. "When stories come out, we devour these stories without really understanding the lengths that sometimes it takes to get those stories—particularly a story like this."