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Euna Lee and Laura Ling


Country: North Korea

Captured: March 17, 2009

Status: Released


The detainment of Euna Lee and Laura Ling is perhaps one of the most well-documented cases of American journalists being wrongfully imprisoned abroad.  During the production of a documentary on North Korea, the two journalists were arrested; they were held and used as bargaining chips amidst a geopolitical backdrop of tensions over North Korean nuclear testing.  It was immediately made clear the women were not being held for an actual crime, but rather so that they could be used by North Korea as a form of political capital to seek talks with the U.S. government.  Kim Jong Il approved a pardon for the journalists immediately following a high-profile visit a special US envoy including former President Clinton.

Another important element, this case illustrates the power of political savvy and sophisticated regional insights to bring about rapid resolution.  As American journalists, Lee and Ling were well connected and their status attracted support from many people well-versed on North Korea and its politics.  Unlike many other ShowTrial victims, these detainees did not rely solely on inexperienced family to plead for their release.  Their social mobility and access to informed and well-connected individuals meant that these detainees and their families were able to accelerate the typical learning curve of a ShowTrial, hastening the women’s release.


On March 17, 2009, Euna Lee and Laura Ling were working on a documentary about the desperate lives of North Koreans fleeing their homeland for a chance at freedom when they were violently apprehended by North Korean soldiers. For nearly five months they remained detained while friends and family in the United States were given little information about their status or conditions. After months of interrogations and a trial before North Korea’s highest court, they received a sentence of twelve years of hard labor in the country’s notorious prison camps.

Euna Lee is a South Korean-born American journalist who worked for Current T.V. as a producer and editor.

Laura Ling is an American journalist who worked for Current T.V. as a correspondent and head of its journalism department.

Case Report

Lee and Ling were filming a documentary about North Korean defectors in China for Current T.V. in March of 2009. Lee, Ling, cameraman Mitch Koss, and their guide Kim Seong-cheol were filming at the Tumen River, which borders China and North Korea. The river was frozen over with ice, allowing the group to walk on it.  They stepped a few yards into North Korea from the Chinese side.  When they were soundly back on Chinese soil they were chased, assaulted, kicked, hit with the butt of a rifle and finally dragged back to North Korea by soldiers from the Korean People’s Army.  Koss and Seong-cheol were fast enough to escape the soldiers.  Ling and Lee were detained and subjected to “intense interrogation” for illegal entry and espionage according to South Korean newspaper, JoongAngIlbo.  The two found themselves in the center of a nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States. It has not been disputed, they were being held as bargaining chips. 

“The two found themselves in the center of a nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States.”

North Korea and the United States do not have formal diplomatic relations; therefore, Sweden represents U.S. interests in the country.  Though the Swedish ambassador was able to visit Lee and  Ling during their detention twice, he was not allowed to be present during their closed door trial. 

Lee and Ling were found guilty of illegal entry after a three-day secret trial.  They were sentenced to twelve years of hard labor, 2 yrs for trespassing and 10 years for ‘Hostile acts’.

The judge stated there would be no forgiveness and no appeal.  However, Lee and Ling were not sent directly to a labor camp.  Analysts believed this was a strategy by the North Koreans to seek talks with Washington, D.C.

After weeks of back-channel talks between the United States and North Korea, former President Bill Clinton was specifically requested by Kim Jong Il as a special envoy in an unannounced visit to North Korea.

President Clinton’s request that Ling and Lee be pardoned on humanitarian grounds was granted.  Lee and Ling flew back to Los Angeles with President Clinton on August 5, 2009 where they were reunited with their family after five months of captivity.

Over the past 20 years North Korea has repeated the same pattern – increase nuclear tensions, declare diplomacy dead, and then hope to win bigger concessions later when talks reconvene.  Internally, North Korea portrayed President Clinton’s visit as a victory that portrays Kim Jong Il as the leader who forced Washington to beg for the release of the two journalists.  However, North Korea used the visit as a sign of rapprochement.  The U.S. had been increasing sanctions on North Korea.  North Korea, most likely, received some concessions, in the form of loosening sanctions, in return for the release of the reporters.

Current Status / AFTERMATH

Euna Lee and Laura Ling were pardoned and released when former President Clinton was sent as special envoy.  At the request of President Clinton, Kim Jong Il issued an order of the Chairman of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) National Defense Commission on granting a special pardon.

After returning to her husband and young daughter, Euna Lee wrote a memoir The World is Bigger Now, published by Broadway, about her months spent in the North Korean prison.  She has since earned a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Laura Ling co-authored a New York Times best-selling memoir with her sister, Lisa Ling.  Somewhere Inside, published by William Morrow, documents Laura Ling’s capture and Lisa Ling’s efforts to secure her release. She and her husband, Iain Clayton, welcomed a daughter a year after her release. She is now host of E! Investigates.