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Alumna Euna Lee Shares Her Incredible Story of Captivity in North Korea

Academy of Art University graduate Euna Lee returned to her alma mater to share the story of her four and a half months in captivity in North Korea, a day after North Korean forces fired on a South Korean island.

Motion Pictures & Television Grad Euna Lee

The event, An Evening with Euna Lee, was an opportunity to hear her courageous tale. A book signing followed the event for Euna’s newly released The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea.

On stage with Executive Director of Motion Pictures & Television Diane Baker and Director of Multimedia Communications Jan Yanehiro who interviewed her, Euna told the story of her capture on the North Korean border.

Euna, a graduate of Academy of Art University’s Motion Pictures & Television Editing program, was working with Laura Ling on a Current TV documentary about North Korean defectors in China. Though she had edited stories on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India, American troops in Iraq, and parolees in the US, this was one of her first field assignments.

On March 17, the night they were captured, Euna, Laura and their producer Mitch Koss went with their guide to the Tumen River on the border of North Korea and China. “We never planned to cross the river,” she said.

However, their guide led them out on the still frozen river to show them safe houses. “When we arrived in North Korea, he pointed at houses and without exchanging a word, I knew they were safe houses,” Euna said. “So we filmed it.”

As the group set out to return to the Chinese side of the river, Euna and Laura were captured by soldiers. They were held in North Korea. After a trial, they sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, two years for trespassing and 10 years for their work on the documentary. South Korean by birth, Euna was called a traitor by the judge who sentenced her for her work.

Academy of Art University held a vigil during the women’s captivity to encourage North Korea to allow them to return home. Baker recalled the emotion of the vigil for Euna and the audience: “We were praying, all of us, that you would  come home.”

During frequent interrogations, Euna carefully considered her words. “We had a promise between us that we would always protect our sources,” said Euna.

Their efforts to shield those who had worked with them on their documentary included pulling the ribbon from taped footage. Euna even went so far as to eat paper she had with her that had names of contacts.

“I have to say as a fellow journalist that I respect you for protecting your sources,” Yanehiro said to her. “Because we know that’s what we must do.”

The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea by Euna Lee

Her passion and commitment were an inspiration to many. In her book, Euna writes about her time at Academy of Art University: “By the end of my first semester, I felt sure I had chosen the right career path, and the encouragement I received from my teachers further convinced me.”

The two women returned home in August after former US President Clinton traveled to North Korea to work toward their release. Euna and Laura were allowed to visit with Clinton the night before they were officially released. “As soon as I saw him, I knew we were going home.”

Now home, Euna speaks of her story in terms of people, emphasizing the importance of viewing North Koreans, among them her guards and interrogator, as humans. Having grown up in South Korea, she felt she was exposed to a view of North Koreans as “bad people.”

She told a story of her female guards who loved to listen to Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and ate the same snacks she had grown up with. “I had the realization that they were just people,” she said.

When the conversation was opened to questions from the audience, many stood to express their appreciation of Euna’s bravery. One Academy of Art University student asked what advice she would give emerging journalists. “Go for [the story that] moves your heart,” she said.

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