Euna Lee tells of her ordeal as an American journalist who was released from captivity in North Korea. Lee risked everything to investigate the North Korean refugee crisis. Now together with coauthor Lisa Dickey, Lee tells the remarkable story of her own harrowing journey to freedom after being captured by Kim Jong-il’s soldiers.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Euna Lee came to America in 1996 as a film student. Within three years, she had fallen in love, marrying an aspiring actor she’d met at church. After graduating from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, she rose through the ranks at Al Gore’s cable network, Current TV, making documentaries that mattered.
Lee was a mother, raising a beautiful little girl named Hana and living the classic American dream, until March 2009, when she accepted an assignment that would threaten to destroy all that she held dear. Lee takes the reader behind the scenes of a story that captured headlines around the world, and reveals for the first time how she survived and what she learned during her 140 days of imprisonment.
An inspiring journey of faith, family, and forgiveness, Lee recounts how she became determined to publicize the desperate men and women who risk their lives to escape North Korea by hiring corrupt traffickers and crossing the Timen River into China, where the defectors are branded an economic menace. Hardly in a safe haven, they work meager jobs (for women, jobs that sometimes mean sexual slavery) and live in constant fear of deportation.
On March 17, 2009, Lee and her Current TV colleague Laura Ling (sister of Lisa Ling) attempted to get birdseye footage of this borderland, treading to the middle of the frozen Timen before dawn. They were immediately spotted by North Korean soldiers, who violently dragged the women into Kim Jong-il’s domain.
Lee writes, “Ten minutes earlier, I was a free woman, a TV editor shooting a story on my very first overseas assignment. Now I was a captive.” Lee possessed a special responsibility, serving as translator during those crucial first hours; Laura does not speak Korean.
Blending the perspectives of a mother, a wife, a Korean immigrant, and a person of faith, The book brims with unforgettable scenes, including the bewildering interrogations.
Forced to sign false confessions, Lee and Ling were constantly accused of being spies. After being confined to jail cells, they were moved separately to the Pyongang Guest House, where they would not know if they were under the same roof for the rest of their imprisonment.
After a trial and the pair were convicted and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. Defending herself in court, as North Korea does not pay for attorneys, Lee endured a temperamental judge who angrily accused her of betraying her ancestry.
Betrayers get the death penalty, and Lee became convinced she would be sentenced to die. Instead, she was sentenced to more than a decade of hard labor in a camp described by one media outlet as “hell on earth.”
Lee said she knew that publicly expressing her faith would win her no favors in a country where Christianity is banned, yet she found herself unable to deny it when asked what religion she practiced. Privately, she journeyed to the depths of despair, ashamed to admit that she sometimes felt abandoned by God, though she always emerged from those moments with strengthened faith. Ultimately reunited with her family, she knows her prayers were heard.
Lee kept herself together by “reading” Sleeping Beauty to her daughter while incarcerated.
On the day of her flight to Seoul, Lee walked her daughter to school, playing hide-and-seek along the way. She had planned to be gone for three weeks, counting out the days for Hana on her Barbie calendar – a decision that would haunt Euna as the days dragged into weeks and months.
Aching for her little girl, she began a ritual. Each day at 1:00 p.m. (which was Hana’s bedtime at 9:00 p.m. in California) she would read the favorite bedtime story and hug her pillow tightly.
The triumphant news that former President Bill Clinton had secured a pardon from Kim Jong-il, came just as Lee had begun to resign herself to the numbing prison sentence. Lee and Ling were informed that a special visitor had come to see them.
As camera bulbs flashed, Lee and Ling boarded a plane with the former president. Photographers captured Lee’s airport reunion with her husband and Hana; her marriage was deeply strengthened by the unwavering connection she and Michael sustained while they were separated.
Combining the stirring imagery of a documentary with the intimacy of a poignant memoir, The World Is Bigger Now offers a rare look into the shadows of the North Korean government, while delivering a personal story of triumph in life’s darkest hours.
Lee remains a film editor for Current TV, a cable network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore. She lives and works in California with her husband, actor Michael Saldate, and their daughter, Hana.