Three Christians in the past year have drawn attention to North Korea's repressive regime by crossing the river that divides the Communist nation from China. But unlike activists Robert Park and Aijalon Gomes, who wanted to get arrested, Euna Lee was just trying to do her job: reporting for Current TV on the plight of North Korean defectors. On March 17, 2009, she and fellow journalist Laura Ling were dragged by soldiers across the frozen Tumen River, then separated, interrogated, and imprisoned for five months.
In month four, Lee, a South Korean Christian, began walking and praying seven hours every day. And the walls of Jericho came tumbling down: After mounting pressure from human-rights groups and the intervention of Bill Clinton, the women were sent home on August 4. Days later, Lee was worshiping alongside husband Michael and daughter Hana at The Rock Church in San Diego.
In The World Is Bigger Now (Broadway), Lee recounts her efforts to retain hope and trust in God amid a 12-year prison sentence and threats of never seeing her family again.
You start the book by describing being dragged across the Tumen River by North Korean soldiers. You write, "As a Christian I always believed God would protect me. But where was he now? Why wasn't he helping us?" As you look back on your hardships in prison, where was God?
When we were violently dragged by the North Korean soldiers from the Chinese side, I screamed for help, and I hoped that God would send somebody to rescue me from the situation. When I realized that no one was coming, I was desperate, and I felt so defeated.
I prayed every day crying out for help, but at the same time I was trying to figure things out by myself—what I could do, what I could not do. But whenever I told God, "Okay, it's in your hands, I trust you," all the burdens lifted from my shoulders. And there was a period of time that I got letters from my husband and friends and brothers and sisters from church, and all the letters told me that my husband and my daughter were okay. It felt like God telling me, "Don't worry about them. They're in my hands."
Even though there were times I was impatient with God's answer and was mad at him—I yelled at him and [called him] a liar—he sustained me. I journaled almost every day, and I made a wish list of things I wanted to do when I got home. One day recently, my husband and I realized we had done a lot of the activities on the list without planning. We were talking at our dining table, and we said, "God is so good. He is good."
How did your faith inform your journalism work and your decision to go to North Korea on assignment with CurrentTV?
I believe God gives people different talent and wants to use them. As an editor, I was always looking for a bigger purpose [for] why God would put me in this position. When I learned about the North Korean defectors' situation from the documentary Seoul Train, I knew I had to something to help those people. And then when I was given the opportunity to tell their story, I was excited. I felt I finally found something that God wanted me to do.
When you and Laura returned to the U.S., some onlookers criticized your work, saying it only further endangered defectors. How do you respond to those criticisms?
It was hard, but we went to the heart of the story that we believed needed to be told. Not many people have a context for understanding the defectors' situation. There are many people, thousands, men and women, who cross the Tumen River, who risk their lives every year to escape North Korea. And we were at a natural place where they cross.
When I came home, I was surprised that people put not only our story in the public eye, but also the North Korean defectors' situation as well. One South Korean columnist wrote about our situation, and he said we should not hide from what happened but salvage something out of it. I wrote the book to keep the defectors' situation in the public eye as long as I could.
In the book you describe your interactions with Christian pastor Chun Ki-won, who helps defectors resettle once they escape North Korea. What do you think of the work of South Korean Christians who help defectors? Might they end up doing more harm than good?
There are many people who are helping the defectors. In China, just by interacting with North Korean defectors you can be sent to jail, and some of them are facing time in prison in China. I believe they all are coming from good intentions. Sometimes even the best of intentions can be misconstrued.
How has your church community responded to your experience?
As you read in my book, I am an introverted person. At the end of July in North Korea, I finished "Jericho" in my room for seven hours straight, and I was so happy that I promised God to share my experience when I got home. When I came home, I called my pastor [Tim Chaddick] and told him I wanted to give my testimony …. That was my first public speech, in front of 700 people. I was nervous, but my husband was on my left side, and my pastor was on my right. It was a really good experience. It really wasn't much about my experience in North Korea, but it was more like what I learned how my experience with God in that hard time.
In the time since you and Ling returned to the U.S., how have your life and outlook changed?
I have had the most memorable year since I came home. I told my husband that I have no regrets for the year I have had with my family. I was the type of person who put priority in my career, but through this ordeal, my family became my priority. Even everyday, mundane things like combing Hana's hair or cooking together—those moments are so special.