Somewhere Inside

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Title: Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home
Author: Laura Ling, Lisa Ling
Pages: 322 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (Harper Collins)
Genre: Memoir (journalist)
Release Date: May 18, 2010

If you keep up with current events or watch the news at all, you'll likely remember just a year ago when Laura Ling (Lisa Ling's sister) and Euna Lee, two American journalists, were arrested in North Korea for illegally crossing the border and were ultimately sentenced to 12 years working in a labor camp. Something about their plight affected me more than other similar stories I had heard. It's likely that it was because Lisa Ling is so well-known and I have enjoyed watching her on The View and now as a correspondent for Oprah. It may have been the Asian factor... I'm only half-Asian, but if you haven't noticed yet, I tend to identify with all things and people Asian. Or it may have had to do with the fact that Laura and Lisa are sisters (and I have one sibling - a sister) and I felt horror both at the situation Laura was dealing with and with Lisa's being separated from her sister in such a manner. Then I saw Laura and Lisa on Oprah talking about their experiences, and I know I had to know more. After reading this, I realized how intense this situation was behind the scenes... well, I did imagine that, but there is so much more we, the general public, didn't know going on. This memoir was a fascinating read about what happened during that time, and I enjoyed the way it was written by both sisters and also focused on the relationship between the two of them.

Laura and Lisa alternate telling their sides of the story throughout the book. We initially learn a little about their pasts and how they grew to be such close sisters. Laura talks about the documentary she was shooting about the China/North Korea border, about her arrest, and the five grueling months she spent in prison. During this time, she was sentenced to 12 years in a hard labor camp and had to contemplate the thought of not seeing her family again for over a decade, if not forever. Lisa discusses what was happening from her end in California. Immediately after hearing of Laura's arrest in North Korea, Lisa worked tremendously hard to call in all her contacts, their contacts, and do everything possible to secure Laura's and Euna Lee's releases.

I'll assume most of you reading this review have at least some rudimentary knowledge of North Korea and its regime. They are a communist country; they isolate the citizens of their country from the rest of the world. There is little technology, and the little bit of it is for the elite only. Communication outside the country is forbidden and punishable by execution. Yet they lead their citizens to believe that the rest of the world is a horror filled war zone and that their form of government and community is the grandest (and safest) of all. After the Korean War in the early 1950's, Korea split into North Korea (communist) allied with China and South Korea (democratic) allied with the United States. The border between the two, named the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) "is the most heavily fortified border in the world". (pg. 14, nook e-book). Families were cut off from each other, never to have contact with each other again. Think of a dystopian novel... but it's for real.

Laura Ling was in China, near the border to North Korea, interviewing what are called "defectors". These are North Korean citizens escaping over the border to find better lives in China. But this part of China is not safe, as some North Koreans are led to believe, and the women are often sold to Chinese men for marriage or are forced into the sex industry. Laura Ling and Euna Lee interviewed some of these defectors and, following their guide, they walked onto the frozen river separating the two countries. They accidentally stepped onto the other side of the boundary, and that is when everything started -- North Korean guards came running, and Laura and Euna Lee were unable to get away (though they did make it back to Chinese ground). They were arrested and were separated from each other for the majority of their imprisonments.

There were different facets of this memoir that, together, made this a riveting read. First, I was able to relate to the sisters. Laura and Lisa are the same age difference as me and my sister. I can't imagine the horror that Lisa felt not knowing what was happening to her sister. (In a way, this memoir was one about the relationship between sisters). And the love between Laura and her husband, Iain, is so genuine and romantic. It's what most girls yearn for in a relationship. I first watched on Oprah as they talked about how Iain wrote Laura letters every single day; he sat down at the same time each day too so Laura would know from the other side of the world what he was doing at that exact moment and they could "share" that time together. If for nothing else, I would have enjoyed this read because of these two relationships with Laura and how meaningful they were.

What this book also provided was so much insight into how politics works and the relations the rest of the United Nations has with North Korea. It was told in a simple enough manner that those who may not be interested or are naive to how things at this level work won't be confused or overwhelmed. In that sense, I found this memoir educational as well. It also allowed me to recognize the intensity of the events over the past year when North Korea tested missiles... I had an idea from watching the news what this meant, but reading it from such a personal level was scary. Also seeing how different government officials pulled together and made the necessary steps to free these women was fascinating. Now, this brings us to some controversy that I've heard here and there about this whole situation. There are those who were angered that the two journalists dared to do what they did and that the United States had to step in to help. And if that's the case, I imagine those people will disapprove of the time and effort put into helping these women (because in reading this, we learn there was an immense amount of effort). I think the fact that Laura and Lisa acknowledged this and realize how absolutely fortunate they are to have their connections will soften the negative thoughts some have about this situation. If you are someone who has strong negative opinions about this, then I would, of course, recommend not reading this unless you are able to keep an open mind.

Adding to the political angle of this situation was the manner in which North Korea used indirect communication and utilized both Laura and Lisa as conduits to the White House. Their indirect methods were frustrating, leaving Laura and Lisa to constantly guess as to what North Korea implied they wanted the United States to do; and the "ego-bruising" Lisa referred to was interesting too... not only did they play with the minds of Lisa and Laura, but those of many different politicians. This interaction among the countries' highest surprised me; I learned so much about how negotiations work and the relationships between countries of the United Nations.

But disregarding all the politics, this book taught me about the human spirit, as cliche as that might be. I had difficulty imagining the situation Laura was in, as I sat on my couch in my cozy home while watching tv. I think the fact that I knew how all this ended quelled the terror I felt at imagining her life in captivity. This allowed me to hold out hope while I read about her situation, even though it was still terrifying to imagine. What was also interesting was the relationships Laura built with some of the guards, the interrogator, and the translator; this again shows how human people all over the world truly are. Although they disagreed with each others' governmental ways, when it came down to it, they were all just people.

It's very unfortunate that Laura and her sister had this experience. Both are happy now, (at least by the end of this ordeal, as we already know), and Laura has had some exciting changes in her life. I can't help but feel, after reading this, like I know them and am so happy for them. This memoir was a fascinating look into their lives, into politics and the United Nations, and the situation in North Korea. Laura and Lisa Ling are both women I very much admire. As I mentioned earlier, some disagree with their actions. And though I can't necessarily say I agree with risking so much to report on other countries, I do admit to admiring their resolve to expose the truth about various situations. There is a lot to be gained from reading this book, and I recommend it!


Zibilee said...

I know a bit about this incident after seeing the sisters speak about it on Oprah. It sounds like it must have been terrifying for both of them! I think this would really make an excellent read and that I could probably learn so much from it, so I will be looking into this book. Thanks so much for a very detailed and well written review. It was a delight to read.

Cleverly Inked said...

I watched this whole thing unfold. It's amazing story, I need to read this

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I, to, watched it all unfold and saw this book at the my bookstore recently. Cool to see a review of it!

jackie tracy said...

You already know how I feel about this - and I can't believe the quick turn-around time with turning your life's horror into big bucks... but what a great review!

Jenny said...

Heather -- Thanks for the compliments.. yeah I really enjoyed reading this after seeing them on Oprah. Do you have a nook by any chance?

Liz -- I agree! =)

Michelle -- It was nice to change the pace a little with what I've been reading!

Jackie -- aww, thanks!! You know that means a lot coming from you, lol!

Becky said...

I actually have this on my Kindle and really want to get around to reading it. Their story is absolutely amazing, and she was so lucky to get out. I'm glad to see someone has read it and can recommend it. Thanks for the review!

Trisha said...

What a great, in-depth review! It was interesting to read about the various ways you identify with the story. Thanks for the suggestion.

Meg said...

Wonderful review! Laura and Euna's imprisonment was a story I followed closely as it unfolded, captivated (and horrified) as I was by the thought of the ladies being detained in a communist country. When they were finally brought home, I cried watching the clip of them reuniting with their families.

I'm fascinated by the dynamic between sisters, too, and love reading about them. I definitely think I'd enjoy this book -- thanks for bringing it to my attention!

bermudaonion said...

I really do want to read this book, so I'm glad to see you liked it.

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