The XX Factor

Sins of the Sister

For Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two journalists held in North Korea since March, the nightmare is apparently over: The Hermit Kingdom’s state-run news agency has announced that the two have been pardoned and will be released.

Now that they’re free, I hope that Ling and Lee will talk frankly about their experiences in North Korea. To save face in the international community, Kim Jong-Il’s kingdom almost assuredly housed the imprisoned pair in far better conditions than most “free” North Koreans experience, and they would have been allowed to come in contact with only the most ideologically pure guards and representatives of the government. But Ling and Lee can surely at least give us some information about what the people they came in contact with were like, what sort of knowledge they had about America and the world at large, whether anyone demonstrated any warmth toward them. Some reports have indicated that North Koreans are beginning to understand more about the world thanks to pirated South Korean soap operas and other smuggled goods-did they see any indication of this?

And perhaps they will be able to answer the question that has been on my mind since they were arrested: Was their treatment in any way affected by the National Geographic documentary Inside North Korea ? In 2007, Ling’s sister, Lisa, and members of a camera crew entered the country with a humanitarian group conducting cataract surgery in Pyongyang and secretly filmed what they saw. They saw a government-sanitized version of North Korea, with approved handlers and translators and only limited interactions with “real” North Koreans, but it was chilling nevertheless, particularly in its portrayal of those whose vision had been restored by the group Ling accompanied: When the bandages were removed, each headed straight for the portraits of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, bowed, and led the rest of the gathering in thanking their leaders.

In North Korea, people are regularly and cruelly punished for the sins of their relatives: In the memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang , author Kang Chol-Hwan recalls spending 10 years in a labor camp, beginning as a 9-year-old, because of his grandfather; Shin Dong-hyuk was born in such a camp and lived there until he escaped in his early 20s. And if Kim Jong-Il’s embarrassment about Inside North Korea -his regime regularly monitors such negative coverage and would surely have learned about Lisa Ling’s undercover work-made Ling and Lee’s ordeal that much worse, I shudder to think what must have happened to Lisa Ling’s handlers, those ordered to keep her and her group in line, after it was revealed that their charges carried out such a mission.

Photograph of a sign supporting the release of formerly jailed journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images.