In the early hours of March 17, 2009, Laura Ling and a colleague stepped out onto a frozen river in China, crossing the North Korean border in search of a story—in search of the truth. Her next reality came running at her, shotguns raised.
On April 3, she told Auburn the story of her North Korea captivity; beginning with the butt of a rifle to the head and ending with a presidential rescue by Bill Clinton.
Ling, accomplished journalist, producer and author, was welcomed to The Plains for Auburn's celebration of Asian and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month.
Her story, told in "Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home," drew many at the time of her captivity, rescue and continues to serve as a lesson for those willing to bend an ear.
Ling and her colleague, Euna were the first Americans to ever be tried in North Korea's highest court. She said her time in North Korea was one of little hope, but not without any.
"I would be lying if I said I had never contemplated taking my own life," Ling said. "Sometimes I did find myself in the darkest of places for which I thought I might never be able to escape. I now know what a horrible mistake it was to even consider such a thing."
She said she knew in her heart her family would never stop trying to retrieve her.
Ling jokes about being referred to as "one of the girls rescued by Bill Clinton" or "that North Korea girl," but doesn't mind the titles, as it's given her the opportunity to share the stories she put her life on the line for.
"The people I have met around the world have changed my life and changed my perspective on the world, so I really appreciate the opportunity to share those stories with others," Ling said.
Ling never officially finished the story she was working on in March 2009. Giving lectures is her way of finally telling the stories of female trafficking across the border of North Korea and China.
Ling said she treasures the opportunity to tell the stories she's been told by sources overseas.
While sitting amongst a group of Burmese monks that had fled from Myanmar to the outskirts of Thailand in 2008, she heard their story of how their peaceful protest for basic human necessities led to fear so intense, they were compelled to leave in search of safety from their government.
Ling has spent the majority of her career surrounded by those who fought for personal freedoms and watched some lose their lives in the process.
On the murder-ridden streets of Mexico, she followed fellow journalists from the area as they navigated through crime scene after crime scene in search of cause, explanation and truth.
“Some people have said, ‘Oh, you’re so fearless,’ but actually I am very fearful,” Ling said. “I think if we’re not on our guard and have that fear then you put yourself in a precarious situation.”
In her lecture and book, she said while in captivity she worried less about her personal well-being and more for those who had entrusted her with their life stories.
Watching the news today is surreal, Ling said. Only a few short years ago, Ling was teaching North Korean guards yoga stretches and attempting to make the slightest connections. Success gave her hope and strength to move forward into each passing hour.
“I think that the United States and North Korea tend to see things through black and white terms, there is a lot of rhetoric being spewed back and forth,” Ling said. “There are so many shades of gray though, and I think that I was able to see a lot of the black and white, but also those shades of gray.”
There is a common humanity there that we all share, Ling said.
“I think for anyone in the world it is still such a mysterious place and so little is known about what actually goes on inside that country and vice versa for their citizens,” Ling said. “It’s just a very mysterious place that can be provocative at times.”
After returning to the United States, Ling said she locked herself away for a short while in search of her bearings.
"I was isolated in what is perhaps the most isolated countries in the world, and when I returned and got my freedom back, I went into what was sort of a self-imposed isolation," Ling said. "It was a little hard to get reintegrated back into society."
Nonetheless, the first thing she ate when she returned was pizza, and the first song she heard on the radio was a Depeche Mode song, one of which brought her to tears.
“I love [the USA] with every fiber of my being, and I think that my experience instilled in me a greater appreciation for the freedoms that I have for the freedoms I perhaps once took for granted,” Ling said.
Despite her extensive travel, she found leaving home for larger trips difficult after the incident. Ling laughed and said her first trip out of the country was to "the mean streets of Toronto." Her most recent trip was to Tanzania, where she reported on the energy crisis there.
Ling thoroughly enjoyed her time being in the field but said the national storytelling she's participated in over the past few years has held her curiosity. Ling is currently hosting a show on Z Living Network, called “Conquered.” It highlights people who have overcome great obstacles, Ling said.
Her work with students suffering from high levels of stress, anxiety and depression is just one example of a story she felt needed to be told and worked to tell it. With her time at home, she is busy taking care of her two children.
Her oldest child, Li Jefferson, received her first name from a shortened version of Ling’s sister Lisa’s name and Jefferson from William (Bill) Jefferson Clinton.
Ling said she is forever grateful to President Clinton and Secretary Clinton for all they did during that frightening and unnerving time. She is fairly sure there was a halo atop his head when she was reunited with the first American she had seen in months.
Ling went overseas to Asia to tell a story and came back as one, something she said was difficult to cope with as a journalist.
Her interest in international humanitarian issues spurred from the lack of diversity in her hometown. She grew up one of only six or so Asian students in her classes. This perspective flip-flopped when she began studying at the University of California at Los Angeles or as she referred to it, "University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians."
Her best friends in college were a diverse group of pals, something she thinks led her to a career in journalism.
Along with their influence, Ling simultaneously followed in her sister's footsteps. She said she watched as her older sister traveled the world, listening and reporting fascinating tales.
One of her biggest regrets from the room in which she was held captive by the North Korean government was not spending enough time with her family.
"We all live these very busy, stressful lives, but one day we will wish we had more time with the people we love," Ling said. "I heard from dear friends, many of them college friends that I hadn't heard from in years. I regretted the fact that it took being held captive in North Korea to reconnect with these people."