For the first time, the author, a young wife, mother, and film editor detained in North Korea, tells a harrowing, but ultimately inspiring, story of survival and faith in one of the most isolated parts of the world. On March 17, 2009, the author and her Current TV colleague 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. For Lee, detention would prove especially harrowing. Imprisoned just 112 miles from where she was born and where her parents still live in Seoul, South Korea, she was branded as a betrayer of her Korean blood by her North Korean captors. After representing herself in her trial before North Korea's highest court, she received a sentence of twelve years of hard labor in the country's notorious prison camps, leading her to fear she might not ever see her husband and daughter again. This book draws us deep into her life before and after this experience: what led to her arrival in North Korea, her efforts to survive the agonizing months of detainment, and how she and her fellow captive, Ling, were finally released thanks to the efforts of many individuals, including Bill Clinton. She explains in unforgettable detail what it was like to lose, and then miraculously regain, life as she knew it. This is the story of faith and love and a personal conviction that God will sustain and protect us, even in our darkest hours.
I remembered hearing this story in the newspaper back in March 2009, and thinking, "What kind of idiot journalist goes into North Korea and doesn't expect to get arrested?!?! Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows to stay away from there..." and at the time, I don't think I had even one ounce of sympathy for them. I was frustrated by their actions as journalists who should absolutely know better.
So when a chance to read Lee's memoir of the arrest/imprisonment came up, I took it, not entirely sure what to expect. What did the woman have to say for herself?
It turns out I was humbled by her memoir, and fully shamed for having jumped to conclusions so easily. Yes, Lee and Ling were arrested by North Korean soldiers... on the Chinese side of the border. They weren't even in North Korea at the time.
That's only the beginning to what amounts to no less than an incredible story about life, love, and faith under dire circumstances. While Lee no doubt had an easier time of things in N. Korea than her colleague (Ling didn't speak Korean, Lee did; Ling apparently has a book of her own forthcoming), her account of the time spent in prison and with the guards / officials assigned to her is fascinating.
Lee doesn't build herself up as a hero or a courageous pillar of strength -- rather, she fully admits how she struggled, wept, and alternated between times of active resolve to get home and passive resignation to her fate in a North Korean prison.
What made this an even more interesting read was the picture painted of the North Koreans themselves. Western media doesn't really know what to make of the North Koreans, and since we're not allowed to see within those walls, the country as a whole tends to be demonized. But Lee lets us see that the North Koreans are just like you and I, people who are just trying to get by in the lives they're living, and who for the most part -- perhaps most surprising of all -- actually did everything they could to reunite Lee with her family.
While the book had its down moments (what memoir doesn't?), I'd definitely recommend the book to those who were interested in the story when it broke back in 2009, and anyone who wants to gain a greater understanding of who the North Koreans are -- and their plight in such a restrictive regime.
This book is Euna’s account of what happened. It’s a story of faith in hard circumstances. Throughout her ordeal, Euna kept a relationship with God and it is, I think, a realistic one. I’m pretty sure under similar circumstances, I would also recognize that God was in charge but also perhaps not moving as quickly as I would like. ;)
I also appreciate the fact that she doesn’t portray herself as being particularly brave or heroic. There are plenty of times throughout the narrative where she’s afraid and unhappy, crying and petulant. But that’s the thing with bravery, right? It isn’t particularly noteworthy if you aren’t scared.
I also loved how the majority of the North Koreans she encountered were so…human. I think we forget the humanity in people when they are so far removed from us. We may assume it’s a country of Kim Jong Ils running around oppressing peasants. I’m sure there is some of that. But many of the people she had contact with were full of life and family and singing and happiness, despite their circumstances. I loved how Lee found the humanity in them, and how they found the humanity in her.
I know Lee isn’t a writer (she’s a film editor), so I tried to cut her a little slack in the narrative department. But a lot of the time, I felt like it was a lot of telling and not a lot of showing. For instance, it was obvious she missed her daughter and her husband, but it wasn’t often that I knew specifically what she missed about them. Those sorts of details were missing. It felt more like an umbrella covering everything, whereas those small details would have made it much more compelling. I know there’s a fine balance when releasing a book quickly after something happens (before it becomes old news), but I didn’t feel like Lee had enough time to fully digest what had happened to her. The book seemed a little rushed and it because of that, it lacked some depth.
To me the most fascinating parts of this book were the stories of those refugees (which were a small section of the book). The author relates her experiences interviewing them, as well as their personal stories of escaping from North Korea and seeking refuge in China. It was interesting to get a closer look at what life is like for those trying to leave North Korea, and I will definitely be on the lookout for other good books on the topic.
Euna’s story was one that I already knew from watching all of the media coverage from when it happened. So, while it was nice to read about her experiences and what was going on in her head, there wasn’t a sense of urgency in the reading, because I knew the outcome already.
Euna spends a good amount of time detailing her mental state while in captivity and describing how her interrogator was excellent at using her testimony and that of Lisa Ling (the other reporter who was captured with her) against each other to elicit more information from both of them. Since she was held in solitary confinement (in a house/room with female guards who weren’t allowed to talk to her) much of her story is about her changing mental state from day to day, ranging from despair to hope. It is also filled with references to Euna Lee’s spiritual reflections on her experiences, and how her beliefs as a Christian helped her and strengthened her during the imprisonment.
I’m sure this inspirational story will appeal greatly to some, but for me it was just an okay read (and I think a lot of that had to do with already knowing what was going to happen). However, the stories of the North Korean refugees are important, and I was fascinated by that aspect of the story.