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Telling Stories Behind the Headlines

Alumna and new multimedia communications instructor Euna Lee shares her own personal story of capture in North Korea and her joy at passing on her knowledge to students

In March of 2009, Academy of Art University School of Multimedia Communications instructor and former student Euna Lee was working on a documentary in Asia for now defunct Current TV. Lee and fellow journalist Laura Ling were focusing on the plight of North Koreans—especially women—who defected to neighboring China in search of a better life only to become victims of human traffickers. The two journalists and a cameraman were wrapping up a successful week of filming when, at the urging of their guide, they agreed to visit one more place, a safety house for people crossing the border. While following their guide across the frozen Tumen River in the dark, they inadvertently entered North Korea.

“We had not even been filming a minute when we felt it was too risky to be there,” said Lee, who was born in South Korea and came to the United States in 1996 and enrolled at the Academy the following year. “We started to go back across the river and I turned and saw two soldiers chasing us. We ran as fast as we could for the Chinese side.”

As the soldiers closed in on them, their guide fled and the cameraman disappeared in some bushes. Lee and Ling made it to the other side when Ling fell and hurt her leg. “I couldn’t leave Laura there,” said Lee. “In a flash, we were surrounded by soldiers who dragged the two of us to North Korea.”

They were held at the border for two nights and then moved to a complex in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where they were separated. After a trial that June, both women were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. Lee, who had a husband and four-year-old daughter at home, fell to the floor and sobbed when she heard the dire news.

 “Up until then, I’d been strong,” she said. “But I knew how those labor camps starved prisoners and work them from morning to night. I didn’t think I would survive—I had already lost 17 pounds. I didn’t think I would ever see my daughter or husband again.”

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Journalist and multimedia communications instructor Euna Lee. Courtesy of Euna Lee.

Meanwhile, the women’s families—Ling’s sister Lisa, also a journalist, is the well-known former host of The View— and government representatives were working to free them. Former president Bill Clinton agreed to meet with North Korea’s leader at the time, the ailing Kim Jong II, to try and negotiate a pardon for the two women. 

After several talks with the dictator, Clinton achieved success. Lee said it was “surreal” to fly to Burbank on a private jet with Clinton the next day and be reunited with her family after her 140-day ordeal. 

Adjusting to life back home was challenging at first. She couldn’t sleep in her bedroom, because she was uncomfortable in confined spaces and was suspicious of other Asians who passed her on the street. She was also nervous about returning to work as a documentary journalist. 

To regain her confidence, Lee decided to earn a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. “I thought if I had to go to classes and do homework, I wouldn’t have any excuses not to get out there and film. I went there to restart my career, and it really helped me to push myself.”

Lee said her experience in North Korea taught her to remove herself a bit more from the people she features in her stories, something she has mixed feelings about as she’s always been a very compassionate person. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is her passion for sharing stories of those who often don’t have a voice. 

“I’ve always been interested in telling stories about refugees and other people behind the headlines,” she explained. She is finishing a documentary called The Translator, which focuses on two Arabic translators who risked their lives to help U.S. troops in Iraq and have struggled to start over in America. 

Lee is also enjoying her first semester teaching editing and storytelling in the School of Multimedia Communications. “I love seeing students develop their strengths and become more skillful storytellers,” she said. “And I love sharing what I know with them. It doesn’t feel like a job—it feels like I’m paying it forward.”

She added that she hopes her students will see her as an example of what they can accomplish. “I spoke very little English when I started at the Academy and now I have a career and I’m back here as an instructor.”

Lee’s book about her experience in North Korea, The World is Bigger Now, was published in 2010. You can visit her website at: www.eunalee.net