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

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.

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.

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.