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Interview With Laura and Lisa Ling

Aired May 20, 2010 - 00:00:00   ET



BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a story that gripped the world -- the detention of two American journalists by North Korea. Laura Ling and her colleague, Euna Lee, were working for Current TV in March, 2009, when they were arrested -- accused of entering the country illegally. They were sentenced to 12 years hard labor, spent five months in captivity but were eventually pardoned by North Korean leader, Kim Jong- Il, after he met with former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Ling and Lee were then flown back to Los Angeles with President Clinton. Then, Laura Ling was reunited with her sister Lisa, who's also a journalist. She'd been at the center of the campaign to bring the women home.

Now, Lisa and Laura Ling have published a new book titled "Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and The Other's Fight to Bring Her Home." Journalists with a powerful tale to tell, Laura and Lisa Ling are your Connectors of the Day.


ANDERSON: Well, it's been a year since Lisa Ling's campaign came to fruition in Pyongyang and freed her sister, Laura, as well as Euna Lee.

Earlier, I kept up -- I kept up?

I caught up with the Ling sisters and began by asking them what communications were like between the North Korean camp and the outside world and, indeed, if Laura had a sense of how the campaign to release her was progressing.

This is what she said.


LAURA LING, JOURNALIST: My interrogator and officials in North Korea were definitely trying to communicate with me as to what they wanted and what they -- what was necessary for us to be released. And I tried my best to convey this to Lisa in limited phone calls that we were allowed to have.

ANDERSON: A channel with effectively made Laura a -- a political bargaining tool, to a certain extent.

LISA LING, JOURNALIST: They definitely were -- were bargaining chips, for sure. I mean it got to the point where it was very clear that the North Korean government was trying to dictate, through Laura, although they would never say so explicitly what they were trying to achieve. And I think that during our first two phone calls -- and we were only allowed four -- they could see that when Laura would communicate something to me, we would get it done.

The first time she said we need you to -- it's been too quiet, we launched into a very deferential media campaign and we were begging for mercy and -- and apologizing profusely. And once they saw that starting to happen, I think they thought, OK, well, this -- this could be a way to communicate the things that we want to try and do.

ANDERSON: We've got lots and lots of questions from the viewers. Let me start with a very simple question from Ricky. He asks you, Laura: "What was your typical daily life like while you were imprisoned?"

LAURA LING: Hours and hours of interrogation, questioning about my profession, the story that we were working on, lots of time in isolation alone, meditating, trying -- walking circles around my room. I felt fortunate that I was given three meals a day, even though the portions were very meager. To me, I was getting more than what the average North Korean citizen gets. And I felt grateful for that.

ANDERSON: Fascinating.

Did you ever truly fear for your life?

LAURA LING: I did. I tried to maintain hope throughout, but when I was captured, the -- my initial capture was quite violent. And that always -- I always had that in the back of my head, that anything could happen.

ANDERSON: Lisa, I want to come to some questions from the viewers, but they were ones I had as I watched this story unfold a year ago. Olivia asks: "What involvement did you have, if you can describe it, behind the scenes in negotiations to free Laura and Euna? And how closely did you work with Bill Clinton?"

LISA LING: Well, we -- we were trying to -- to help drive an engine. I mean it was really a collaborative effort. I certainly can't take all of the credit. But our family was pretty -- pretty defiant. And I think because the phone calls between Laura and -- and me were so crucial, I -- I couldn't help but have a -- a pretty active role behind the scenes. But there were so many complications involved. I mean trying to figure out what the most secretive government on earth is trying to accomplish, what - - what they're trying to do, was -- was really like trying to deconstruct a puzzle.

And that applied to both of us. I mean Laura was -- was every day spending time -- spending countless hours trying to figure out, OK, what is it that this government wants?

And then here in this country, during those four phone calls, it was trying to -- to figure out, OK, what is she trying to say?

Who is trying to say this?

Because it was obvious that when I was talking to Laura, it was apparent that this was not just her talking. I knew there were people listening on the call. So everything we said to each other had to be very, very contrived, in a way.

ANDERSON: Joshua Stanton has written to us: "I hope I'm right when he says that, Lisa, you -- you've publicly acknowledged that it was a -- a grave mistake to cross into North Korea. And he says some of his worry that this decision has endangered the lives of North Korean refugees, activists who assist them and the clandestine networks that are used to rescue other North Korean refugees."

What -- what is your response to that, both of you?

LAURA LING: I feel deep regret for actions. I think when you read the book, you'll understand the circumstances that -- that occurred that morning that led us to cross the border.

But it was -- at the end of the day, it was my decision and I have huge regrets. I can say that the producers, camera people who were filming during our documentary were very careful about how we filmed, only showing the backs of heads. And we met in locations that were far from where they lived or worked.

And while we were in custody in North Korea, we were allowed -- for some reason we were allowed to be with our belongings for a short period of time, during which we went to work to destroy this evidence, even to the point of eating our notes.

ANDERSON: How did it feel on the day that you, Laura and Euna stepped off the plane in Los Angeles having received that special pardon from the North Korean leader?

LAURA LING: It was the best day of my life. I mean every day I live with extreme gratitude and feel incredibly blessed. I -- what I went through pales in comparison to what the people of North Korea live through every single day. And I feel just so grateful to be home with my family.

ANDERSON: And also from you, Lisa?

LISA LING: It was one of the most unpredictable, scary, devastating periods in -- in all of our lives. And we just -- we just thank god that we got this blessing last year.


ANDERSON: Emotive stuff.

Lisa and Laura Ling

And tomorrow's Connector shot to literary stardom with the dreamlike prose of "The God of Small Things." I'm sure you've read it. The Indian born author, Arundhati Roy, has also used her way with words to political ends -- speaking out on such issues as India's nuclear program.

Do send us your questions. Head to

Back to your Connector of the Day tomorrow.