What I learned as a prisoner in North Korea | Euna Lee
Articles

What I learned as a prisoner in North Korea | Euna Lee


Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Camille Martínez
I recently read about
what the young generation of workers want
in Harvard Business Review.
One thing that stuck out to me
was: don’t just talk about impact,
but make an impact.
I’m a little bit older than you,
maybe much older than you,
but this is exactly the same goal
that I had when I was in college.
I wanted to make my own impact
for those who live under injustice;
it’s the reason that I became
a documentary journalist,
the reason I became
a prisoner in North Korea for 140 days.
It was March 17, 2009.
It is St. Patrick’s Day for all of you,
but it was the day
that turned my life upside down.
My team and I were making a documentary
about North Korean refugees
living below human life in China.
We were at the border.
It was our last day of filming.
There was no wire fence
or bars
or sign to show that it is the border,
but this is a place that a lot
of North Korean defectors use
as an escape route.
It was still winter,
and the river was frozen.
When we were in the middle
of the frozen river,
we were filming about
the condition of the cold weather
and the environment
that North Koreans had to deal with
when they seek their freedom.
And suddenly, one
of my team members shouted,
“Soldiers!”
So I looked back,
and there were two small soldiers
in green uniforms with rifles,
chasing after us.
We all ran as fast as we could.
I prayed that, please
don’t let them shoot my head.
And I was thinking that,
if my feet are on Chinese soil,
I’ll be safe.
And I made it to Chinese soil.
Then I saw my colleague
Laura Ling fall on her knees.
I didn’t know what to do
at that short moment,
but I knew that I could not
leave her alone there
when she said,
“Euna, I can’t feel my legs.”
In a flash, we were surrounded
by these two Korean soldiers.
They were not much bigger than us,
but they were determined
to take us to their army base.
I begged and yelled for any kind of help,
hoping that someone
would show up from China.
Here I was, being stubborn
towards a trained soldier with a gun.
I looked at his eyes.
He was just a boy.
At that moment,
he raised his rifle to hit me,
but I saw that he was hesitating.
His eyes were shaking,
and his rifle was still up in the air.
So I shouted at him,
“OK, OK, I’ll walk with you.”
And I got up.
When we arrived at their army base,
my head was spinning
with these worst-case scenarios,
and my colleague’s
statement wasn’t helping.
She said, “We are the enemy.”
She was right: we were the enemy.
And I was supposed to be frightened, too.
But I kept having these odd experiences.
This time, an officer brought me his coat
to keep me warm,
because I lost my coat on the frozen river
while battling with one of these soldiers.
I will tell you what I mean
by these odd experiences.
I grew up in South Korea.
To us, North Korea was always the enemy,
even before I was born.
South and North have been
under armistice for 63 years,
since the end of the Korean War.
And growing up in the South
in the ’80s and ’90s,
we were taught propaganda
about North Korea.
And we heard so many graphic stories,
such as, a little young boy
being brutally killed
by North Korean spies
just because he said,
“I don’t like communists.”
Or, I watched this cartoon series
about a young South Korean boy
defeating these fat, big, red pig,
which represented the North Koreans’
first leader at the time.
And the effect of hearing
these horrible stories over and over
instilled one word in a young mind:
“enemy.”
And I think at some point,
I dehumanized them,
and the people of North Korea
became equated
with the North Korean government.
Now, back to my detention.
It was the second day
of being in a cell.
I had not slept
since I was out at the border.
This young guard came to my cell
and offered me this small boiled egg
and said, “This will give you
strength to keep going.”
Do you know what it is like,
receiving a small kindness
in the enemy’s hand?
Whenever they were kind to me,
I thought the worst case
was waiting for me after the kindness.
One officer noticed my nervousness.
He said, “Did you think
we were all these red pigs?”
referring to the cartoon
that I just showed you.
Every day was like a psychological battle.
The interrogator had me sit at a table
six days a week
and had me writing down
about my journey, my work,
over and over until I wrote down
the confession that they wanted to hear.
After about three months of detention,
the North Korean court sentenced me
to 12 years in a labor camp.
So I was just sitting in my room
to be transferred.
At that time, I really had
nothing else to do,
so I paid attention
to these two female guards
and listened to what
they were talking about.
Guard A was older,
and she studied English.
She seemed like she came
from an affluent family.
She often showed up
with these colorful dresses,
and then loved to show off.
And Guard B was the younger one,
and she was a really good singer.
She loved to sing Celine Dion’s
“My Heart Will Go On” —
sometimes too much.
She knew just how
to torture me without knowing.
(Laughter)
And this girl spent a lot of time
in the morning to put on makeup,
like you can see in any young girl’s life.
And they loved to watch
this Chinese drama,
a better quality production.
I remember Guard B said,
“I can no longer watch our TV shows
after watching this.”
She got scolded
for degrading her own country’s
produced TV shows.
Guard B had more
of a free mind than Guard A,
and she often got scolded by Guard A
whenever she expressed herself.
One day, they invited
all these female colleagues —
I don’t know where they came from —
to where I was held,
and they invited me
to their guard room
and asked
if one-night stands
really happen in the US.
(Laughter)
This is the country where
young couples are not even allowed
to hold hands in public.
I had no idea where they
had gotten this information,
but they were shy and giggly
even before I said anything.
I think we all forgot
that I was their prisoner,
and it was like going back
to my high school classroom again.
And I learned that these girls also
grew up watching a similar cartoon,
but just propaganda towards
South Korea and the US.
I started to understand where
these people’s anger was coming from.
If these girls grew up
learning that we are enemies,
it was just natural
that they would hate us
just as I feared them.
But at that moment, we were all just girls
who shared the same interests,
beyond our ideologies that separated us.
I shared these stories with my boss
at Current TV at the time
after I came home.
His first reaction was,
“Euna, have you heard
of Stockholm Syndrome?”
Yes, and I clearly remember
the feeling of fear
and being threatened,
and tension rising up
between me and the interrogator
when we talked about politics.
There definitely was a wall
that we couldn’t climb over.
But we were able to see
each other as human beings
when we talked about family,
everyday life,
the importance of the future
for our children.
It was about a month before I came home.
I got really sick.
Guard B stopped by my room to say goodbye,
because she was leaving
the detention center.
She made sure that no one watched us,
no one heard us,
and quietly said,
“I hope you get better
and go back to your family soon.”
It is these people —
the officer who brought me his coat,
the guard who offered me a boiled egg,
these female guards who asked me
about dating life in the US —
they are the ones
that I remember of North Korea:
humans just like us.
North Koreans and I were not
ambassadors of our countries,
but I believe that we were representing
the human race.
Now I’m back home and back to my life.
The memory of these people
has blurred as time has passed.
And I’m in this place
where I read and hear
about North Korea provoking the US.
I realized how easy it is
to see them as an enemy again.
But I have to keep reminding myself
that when I was over there,
I was able to see humanity
over hatred
in my enemy’s eyes.
Thank you.
(Applause)

100 Comments

  • Debbie Thomas

    It's always the few that paint the misleading, disjointed, and out right blantant broad picture of the many. People are people, feel their view are right ones at any particular moment, and pass the sins of the father's on to the children's, children's, children's, children (who had and have nothing to do with any of it!) Unfortunately, this is universal not just inductive of North Korea.

  • XxPhoenixHarpyexX2

    what a laughable thing to say about DpRK
    bitches, youll be surprised to learn how much you could learn (and experience if youre ver unlucky) about being jailed in USA

  • Yetundey

    Thank you for sharing all that positivity and insight 😍 of all the experiences you made in NK you chose to only share those which will actually cause positive change!!! ❤

  • Valare Beauchamp

    She's lucky. They tortured that one poor tourist until he was in a coma, didn't tell anyone for a year, then finally allowed his mom to come get him. He died 6 days later. They sent her a bill for 2 million dollars for his 'care'.

  • Doutor Gori

    You and Laura Ling are two idiots. You caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people with your irresponsable behaviour.

  • DcaCo123

    I feel for you Lady, I was held by the Communists in Czechoslovakia in 1987 for 6 days. I can only imagine what you went through. I pray that the liberal socialist democrats in the USA NEVER TAKE CONTROL. Communism is the next step of socialism.

  • Darris Hawks

    So basically she was never brutalized or kept in solitary confinement or tortured in any way and the commenters on this video are like "THEY'RE ALL PRISONERS"

    Y'all are the brainwashed ones.

  • Mary Hocking

    Not every prisoner is treated as kindly…you look like them and speak the same language, also your 12 year sentence was reduced to 273 says…not everyone is as lucky as you….I do realize N Korean people are in the dark / propaganda with limited rights and privileges….

  • William Hensley

    As a former interrogator, I know all too well my "enemy" is human. In fact, I rely on that to do my job. Intel and propaganda is a diabolical business.

  • EvanBarkk

    Im korean and my friend is living in south korea right now. He and I know that South Korea are taking the wrong path right now. All of korea is doomed. Korea needs to understand the path that they are going. Korea is being too prideful and thats leading them down a bad path. My parents and grandparents who used to live there agree. I hope they start making right choiced

  • J.K. Jacob

    I've never suspected the people of NK to be inhuman; only that they are brainwashed to believe toxic BS. Ideas are powerful so scrutinize the ones you're asked to accept. The North Koreans are forced to accept nonsensical propaganda under penalty of… well, you can imagine. People in the West have the freedom to think critically but, it seems, seldom do so, willingly capitulating to demagoguery and appeals to authority.
    It may be a cliche but nonetheless it remains important: think for yourself. Challenge your own ideas, consider the principles you're advocating, identify your values. And please be more careful with normative "should" declarations.

  • Steve Armendariz sr

    NK leaders are like gang leaders, they bully their own people into slavery! The ones that don’t mind gets tortured while the ones that kiss azz gets too eat and live a little better life, as for the real but suckers as the military and upper people living life much better, you know the slave people can over power their so forth called leaders, and fix their future and problems!!

  • Seung Min Lee

    But they are the enemy. We all know that in the end we are all human. Who denies that??? But that doesn't change the fact that they are enemy of the free world. These "people" are also brainwashed and devoted their life to protect Kim's dynasty. Just saying "they are just the same as us" doesn't change the world, and mostly importantly, it doesn't change their life. The complete collapse of that brutal regime will truly make a difference in these people's life. Until then, they are also the ENEMY because they are the ones who will fight for their leader in times of war.

  • Rebecca Webb

    Why can't we help them ….???
    Not free them of their country but from captivity , there's no excuse really,we can go to middle East where ppl can defect but not little Korea where ppl cannot???? There's a journalist story, not what's wrong as much as why Why it's wrong what can be done done and why it's not being done!

  • chrisserrific

    Beautiful story. People really aren't a reflection of their government, or a stereotype most of the time. In a state like North Korea, you don't get much choice, you just go along with the status quo as best you can, or you die. There's not much room for revolution, especially when it's not just you who will be punished, but your whole family.

  • kc berenguer

    while this video flashed on my screen at the back of my mind, i already concluded that Ms. Eunna will speak about violence that she had experienced but it was the opposite, i felt terribly ill for what i first thought about NK's people,thanks to this video for making me realize that NK's people are humans too but unfortunately prisoners by their own gov't 🙁 Humanity do exists 🙂

  • MagBlueRoses

    Is there nothing we as common free men and women can do to help North Koreans?
    I mean I know there's nothing… but every time I watch someone talk about North Korea or watch videos like this, it's hard to take in… they are people for gods sake! They can't live like that. Their children can't live like that.
    We all take our freedom for granted and I know it's not my decision to live happily in a democracy, but I feel slightly guilty to be living the way I do when there are millions suffering to lead a life that we consider normal… anyone else feeling that way?

  • keyman keys

    If we could just get rid of all the " Leaders ' , lawyers and war maybe we could take time to find out all people want basically the something . We all want to earn a income , take care of our family and live in peace .

  • Smile Spreader

    That's how media controls the mindset even before we can judge the validity of our perception! Actions of some people don't define the whole community.
    The same negative perception also created towards Muslims through media.We should verify the information before we already make a final judgement about others otherwise we'll look like a fool and a puppet of media. The programmes are set in our minds by Politics but we are human we have a choice to get manipulated by it or not!…

  • Yashoda Pokhrel

    Amazing thought: Humans just like us.
    I feel so heartbroken to hear your story. The so-called enemies really need the justice. I hope North Korean would be as happy as you South Korean. God bless!

  • No Name

    Fk no Ted talk assignments anymore I’ve watched like 10 already enjoying it, (Nederland havo 5) fk those articles! They are the worst!

  • MrStar Nation

    I don't blame the north Koreans for anything. The one to blame is the leader who inforced suck laws. Humans be human. The corrupted be corrupt

  • 陈小金

    TED is a private non-profit organization in the United States. The United States is not a refugee maker, but it is hypocritical to incite hostility here!

  • Red894336643

    Why did you enter North Korea illegally? The North Korean soldiers had know idea why you were there. How did you think the North Koreans soldiers would react?

  • Tenmil

    Hello 👋 from Puerto Rico 🇵🇷 !!! Today is September 21st 2019 and it is 5:00am ! What I want to ask is , if everyone is trained to fight and the people all have weapons, then why can’t the people take over the government and destroy it ??? 😔😔😔😢😢😢🧐🧐🧐

  • Clifford Santillan

    Most North Koreans are not heartless. They were made to believe that we are enemies, but deep inside, they still feel sympathy and love.

  • Samarth Chugh

    Actually, During soviet union, North Korea was funded by USSR and people of North Korea had access to free education and all the benefits. South Korea under the United States was helping with war in Japan and was not in a good shape.
    However after the collapse the South Koreans adapted for capitalism.
    Kinda like the people who chose the superior North Korea for its dominance and benefits later became victims of that very own communism. SO the generations of those settlers in North Korea are struggling.

    Correct me if Im wrong.

  • Moses Lee

    It is to say that such prison camp' girls pop out loud in North Korea prison when you boasted of your experiences will kill them. Do not speak carelessly to sell people there.

  • G G

    Exactly we are all human being. All that hatred stories about North Korea is made-up by South Korea and US, mesmerizing the people mind to gain political power.

  • Felicity Ray Self

    She was only there for 140 days. If she actually got sent out to do hard labor for a few years in the gulag she would be telling us a very different story.

  • Wendy Wendy

    Why this happen. Because the public have been paying government money, thus giving them the money to buy and sustain military weapon n hire military people to come to harming ourselves (citizen) ourselves.

  • Fart Remix

    how did she learn english?
    Her english is quite good. all the grammar is good. She actually sounds like a native speaker but tries to sound like an immigrant.
    some propaganda here

  • T C

    You know, I think we all realize that those people in North Korea are just like everyone else. They want all the little things that you and I have come to expect from life. But people, here or there, can be brainwashed into thinking a certain way about anything or anyone. Therein lies the problem. Once people see the proverbial light, then everything is clear. Those poor people live under, what came to be, or more accurately, what was allowed to be, a dictatorship. It'll work itself out some day, but not until hundreds of thousands more die under a regime that has no concept of freedom, liberty, or civil rights. All I can say is that we'd better watch it or the same darkness that overcame North Korea, Russia, China, and others will happen here. Freedom is fragile.

  • Lynn Sun

    Your presentation made me cry. Koreans are so much better than Chinese. Yeah I am Chinese. See how we fight to each other in every video about China Hong Kong Taiwan on Youtube

  • Vincent Hedges

    To put this talk into context, one should listen to people who were born in North Korea, escaped from North Korea if you really want to understand. I do not think this journalist got a clear picture.

  • Ann Mary

    Wait, in 7:17, 7:31, 7:42, I had a few doubts… Weren't North Koreans NOT ALLOWED to sing foreign songs, put on makeup, and watch foreign shows??

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