Ling and Lee spent five months in captivity and were sentenced to 12 years hard labor before being set free last month. In their joint statement published today on Current TV’s Web site, they explain how they were detained by North Korean authorities on March 17 along the Tumen River, which separates China and North Korea. The journalists found themselves along the river while working on a story about North Korean defectors and human trafficking. People are regularly trafficked across the Tumen, Ling and Lee explained.
Although they were suspicious of their whereabouts, Ling and Lee followed their guide — who they trusted — onto North Korean soil. They were there for only a minute, but that didn’t stop North Korean guards with guns from chasing them into China and dragging them back onto forbidden soil.
The women provide even more details about the events that lead to their arrest:
“When we set out, we had no intention of leaving China, but when our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river, we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side. He pointed out a small village in the distance where he told us that North Koreans waited in safe houses to be smuggled into China via a well-established network that has escorted tens of thousands across the porous border.”
“Feeling nervous about where we were, we quickly turned back toward China. Midway across the ice, we heard yelling. We looked back and saw two North Korean soldiers with rifles running toward us. Instinctively, we ran.
We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us. Producer Mitch Koss and our guide were both able to outrun the border guards. We were not. We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained. Over the next 140 days, we were moved to Pyongyang, isolated from one another, repeatedly interrogated and eventually put on trial and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.”
After their detainment, Ling and Lee tried to limit the repercussions of their reporting on any of their sources:
“In the early days of our confinement, before we were taken to Pyongyang, we were left for a very brief time with our belongings. With guards right outside the room, we furtively destroyed evidence in our possession by swallowing notes and damaging videotapes. During rigorous, daily interrogation sessions, we took care to protect our sources and interview subjects. We were also extremely careful not to reveal the names of our Chinese and Korean contacts…People had put their lives at risk by sharing their stories, and we were determined to do everything in our power to safeguard them.”
And although their captivity has become an international story, Ling and Lee hope to keep the story they were working on so diligently in the spotlight:
“We know that people would like to hear more about our experience in captivity. But what we have shared here is all we are prepared to talk about — the psychological wounds of imprisonment are slow to heal. Instead, we would rather redirect this interest to the story we went to report on, a story about despairing North Korean defectors who flee to China only to find themselves living a different kind of horror. We hope that now, more than ever, the plight of these people and of the aid groups helping them are not forgotten.”