EDITOR'S NOTE: Several Unleashed journalists took part in a news conference March 6 with journalist Laura Ling, that night's Yakima Town Hall Speaker Series guest at The Capitol Theatre. From that group, stories from Cara Elzie of Riverside Christian School, and Mary Ballew and Anna Ergeson of Selah High School follow.
Cara Elzie, Riverside Christian School
“I could not recognize the face looking back at me,” recalled award-winning journalist Laura Ling, thinking back to the time 10 years ago when she looked at herself after being beaten and arrested for crossing the border into North Korea while working on a story about human smuggling.
On March 6, Ling recounted her experiences and personal insights during an appearance at The Capitol Theatre as part of the Yakima Town Hall Speaker Series. Ling spent years as a journalist, traveling all over the world to report on critical global issues, including the Mexican drug war and the smuggling of women between the China-North Korea border.
While covering the latter story, Ling and one of her colleagues, Euna Lee, were captured and taken captive by North Korean soldiers in March 2009. The two women had been working on a story about North Korean refugees living in China, most of whom had smuggled themselves across the China-North Korea border. Ling said she believed these women had “risked their lives for greater freedom” but that, upon entering China, most were coerced and tricked into prostitution.
Ling and Lee, along with their videographer and a guide, had been standing on the frozen Yalu River, which divides the two countries. As Ling recounted her story of being taken captive, she described the violence of the soldier as she desperately tried to stay on Chinese soil. “I can’t blame anyone but myself,” she said.
Ling and Lee became the first Americans to be tried in North Korea’s highest court, where they were sentenced to 12 years in labor camps. Ultimately, the pair were imprisoned for 140 days before being rescued by the intervention of former President Bill Clinton. Years before Ling was imprisoned, Clinton had been the first political leader to call Kim Jong Il when his father, Kim Il-Sung, had died; Clinton ended up conveying his condolences even before the leaders of North Korea’s allied countries had done so. Ling told the Yakima audience that Clinton had called not as a political leader, but as a man who was able to relate to the pain and anguish of losing a loved one. Ever since that phone call back in 1994, Kim had wanted to meet Clinton, and Clinton’s small act of kindness ended up opened up an avenue 15 years later for these two women to be rescued.
As Ling spoke in Yakima about her experience, one theme persisted: hope. Rather than focusing on the terrible tragedy that she experienced, she focused on common humanity that she shared with the guards. While in prison, Ling searched for a human connection. For example, she hugged a female guard who was crying. Although this appeared to be a selfless act, Ling explained that her motives in the moment were actually quite selfish. She hugged the guard because Ling craved the human connection; she wanted to feel the physicality of another human.
Ling also recounted stories that demonstrated the “glimmers of humanity” she experienced while in prison. At one point, a female guard who had been stationed to watch her was released to go visit her family. When the guard returned, she expressed to Ling that she felt guilty because she had been able to see her family, but Ling was separated from hers. On more than one occasion, guards also gave Ling candy, which was a great risk for them personally because they could have been punished for showing kindness to Ling.
Ling told the Yakima crowd that her time in prison taught her many hard lessons. “I feel incredibly lucky to be home and to be free,” she said.
While in Korea, Ling explained that there was one thing that kept coming back to her: a part of the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou:
“The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”
More information about Laura Ling and her imprisonment in North Korea is available in the book “Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home,” which she wrote with her sister, Lisa Ling.
Cara Elzie is a senior at Riverside Christian School.
Mary Ballew, Selah High School
My question to journalist Laura Ling was the first one she took during the press conference that preceded her March 6 talk at the Yakima Town Hall Speaker Series.
“In your opinion, what is the greatest issue facing women in the press today?”
Ling responded that she’d need some time to think about an answer. She finally got back to that question toward the end of the press conference, and her answer initially addressed all journalists, not just women. She said that journalism as a whole today is under threat, which means that democracy is under threat.
This attack is present throughout the world, and I believe that when freedom of speech is limited, a dark cloud is cast over all freedoms. Each time hostility toward the press is tolerated, all freedoms are eroded. Ling subtly spoke of the “fake news” era, in which it is easier than ever to blame the press for the struggles our political leaders face. But I feel that for the sake of democracy, the press must persevere under this threat.
Regarding women in the press, Ling brought up the gender pay gap as the most pressing issue that all types working women encounter, saying, “I should not have to be marching in the streets with my 8-year-old daughter” in having to fight to resolve this situation.
Ling has witnessed many of the same dramatic challenges facing women all around the globe. Before her capture in 2009 on a frozen river between China and North Korea, she attempted to report on the trafficking of women into abusive relationships and businesses, an issue that seems much removed from the United States and the Yakima Valley. But it was just this year that massage parlors in Florida were closed on suspicion of human trafficking, and in 2014 similarly shady enterprises were shut down in Yakima. Of course, reporting on what was being said about the abductions of women in North Korea and China put Ling and her press partners at risk.
The women’s rights issues that Ling reported on are immensely different from the challenges the average American woman faces. But as the iconic poet and civil rights warrior Audre Lorde once observed: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Ling concluded her response to my question by paying a great compliment to the panel of Unleashed ladies who attended the press conference (*self five*!), and to the women of the Yakima Town Hall who all help bring culture to the Valley, by saying that she is inspired by our female initiative in social change.
Mary Ballew is a junior at Selah High School.
Anna Ergeson, Selah High School
On March 6, The Capitol Theatre stage was home to Laura Ling, a journalist who embraces the adventures — and sometimes dangers — of covering news stories. Her message about freedoms, freedom of speech, and freedom as a person was both powerful and inspiring.
During the hour before her Town Hall Series lecture, I participated in a press conference with Ling. As a writer, I was curious about how the Trump presidency has impacted her career and what journalists can do to counteract the fake news perspective. This has been a topic of great interest to me, so I was glad to have the opportunity to ask a professional journalist. Luckily, her answers did not disappoint.
Ling spoke with admiration about the courage shown by journalists. She recounted the experience of reporting alongside a journalist who was bravely pursuing the truth in a dangerous town in Mexico where drug cartel violence had made the sight of dead bodies commonplace.
Ling shared that the Trump presidency has made her more fired up as a journalist. She recognizes the need to stand up for freedom of speech in a time when journalism is under attack. A terrifying report by PBS detailed the murder of 53 journalists around the world in 2018. Ling is among those in the journalism profession who are risking their lives in pursuit of accurate and authentic news coverage. I look up to journalists who are willing to stand up for freedom when it is desperately needed, especially women like Ling, whose appearance in Yakima also happened to coincide with Women’s History Month.
She also noted that young people, including me and my fellow Unleashed reporters, have opportunities to use different outlets when writing a news article. Young people have the power of social media to spread news content, which is helpful when a story needs to be shared broadly in a short amount of time. With journalism under threat, I am fortunate to have access to new ways of telling a story.
In her morning speech before a nearly full audience in The Capitol Theatre, Ling focused on her captivity in North Korea. After crossing a frozen river bordering China and North Korea to document a border that North Koreans cross in their attempt to flee the country, she and a companion were taken by two North Korean soldiers and placed in detention. At the court hearing, Ling was sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp; 10 of those were for being a journalist. Though she was pardoned after former President Bill Clinton intervened by coming to North Korea, Ling said her 140-day captivity changed her perspective on journalism.
She described how necessary it was, during times of complete heartbreak, to focus on the story she went there to tell: a story about freedom. She said she now understood what it felt like to lose her freedom, like so many of the people she interviews.
She also spoke on the importance of hope; she said hope was what got her through the toughest of times.
When Ling got back in the United States, she saw the ever-present need to fight for freedoms, even in her own country.
Her message of hope is encouraging. When I am discouraged by references to fake news, I can focus on Ling and the many other journalists who are busy risking their personal safety to fight for freedom.
Anna Ergeson is a junior at Selah High School.