Laura G. Ling is an American journalist and writer. She worked for Current TV as a correspondent and vice president of its Vanguard Journalism Unit, which produced the Vanguard TV series. She was the host and reporter on E! Investigates, a documentary series on the E! Network. In November 2014, it was announced that Ling joined Discovery Digital Networks as its Director of Development. Ling is the sister of Lisa Ling, who is a special correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, National Geographic Explorer, and CNN. Laura Ling and fellow journalist Euna Lee were detained in North Korea after they illegally crossed into North Korea from the People's Republic of China without a visa. They were tried and convicted, then subsequently pardoned after former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-il.
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My short bio: Hey everyone! Laura Ling here. I'm an American journalist, author, and if you remember back in 2009, I was detained by the North Korean government for over four months. Now I'm working with Discovery Digital Networks on an exciting new network called Seeker. I've been getting to cover some fascinating things like visiting an American town without wifi as well as touring a lab that produces 3D printed Rhino horns that might help solve poaching!
I'm super excited to take all your questions, so let's do this. Ask away!
Edit 1: So many questions! I'm trying to get around to everyone, I promise. :)
Edit 2: Thank you all so much for joining my AMA. I'm not done yet but I'll be wrapping up in half an hour or so from now. Keep throwing questions at me! This is a lot of fun.
Edit 3: This was great! Thank you to everyone who asked a question, even if I couldn't get around to it. If you want to keep up with me and everything I'm doing, I suggest you follow me on twitter. https://twitter.com/lauraling
Thank you so much Reddit, I hope to talk to you all again in the future!
Hi, Ms. Ling! Thank you for doing this AMA. What were your living conditions like when you were detained in North Korea? What was a typical day like? Also, what are the events and places you have covered that fascinate you the most?
My conditions were simple and basic. There was a guard's room attached to mine with two guards present at all times. During the beginning of my detainment, the days were mainly filled with being interrogated. It was incredibly stressful. After a few weeks, I was allowed some books -- they were an amazing escape into other worlds. I spent most of my day thinking about my family. Hoping I would get through another day. Wow--this is bringing back memories. As for events I've covered that have fascinated me most: touring toxic e-waste villages in China, slave labor in the Amazon, Mexico's drug war, freedom movements in Myanmar. It's ironic that I've covered many issues of freedom, and then lost my own. A lesson to note take our liberties for granted.
How does the type of journalism you do now compare to the type of journalism you did before your detention?
Thanks for the question! In the past, I've covered more international issues--stories about human rights, the environment, conflicts, etc. Now that I'm a mom of two young children, I'm hesitant to travel as far, for long stretches of time. I'm very excited about the work that I'm doing for Seeker. I've been able to cover some really amazing, inspiring stories. I recently met a young woman who was sexually assaulted in the military. She talked about her ritual of photography that has allowed her to cope. I have a series called Rituals (motivated by a ritual that I started practicing during my captivity) that focuses on people who have overcome obstacles and the Rituals that have helped them through. I hope you'll watch. I feel there are so many stories in our own backyard that need to be told. Having said that, I'll be heading around the world in about a week to cover an issue that I'm incredibly passionate about --the energy crisis in Africa. Just got my immunizations this morning! hence my slow typing.
How do you explain what happened to you in North Korea to your kids?
I've been asked this question a lot, and have thought about it a lot. And in fact, just a couple weeks ago, I sat down with my five year old daughter and told her what happened. She was just about to start kindergarten and I didn't want her to possibly hear about it from anyone other than me. I told her that I was working on a story about people that need help (I was covering the trafficking of North Korean women) and that while I was doing that, I found myself in trouble and needed help. President Bill Clinton rescued me and my co-worker, and that is why her middle name is Jefferson after, William Jefferson Clinton. I was on the verge of tears telling her this.
Hey Laura -- first, let me just thank you for your work. I've really enjoyed following your sister and you, especially while you were at Current. I passed along your book to many friends and family, and am happy it really opened some eyes. I'm particularly proud of how politically well-informed my mom (a software engineer) has become over the years, and I believe much of that is due to your book sparking a new interest, and providing us with some great discussions.
My question for you is: Do you suggest tourists travel to countries like North Korea, Turkmenistan, etc. to "see for themselves" even though they are likely getting a manufactured government-controlled tour, or is it just best we keep our tourism dollars away from these places, at least for now?
Wow. Thanks so much for your kind message and thoughtful question. I am very humbled. As for encouraging tourists to travel to restrictive/oppressive countries, I go back and forth. I do think person-to-person interaction can change people's perspectives about one another in positive ways. But there have been recent incidents, specifically involving tourists in North Korea who have been held without warrant while visiting that country. So I would definitely proceed at your own risk.
How was the jail food? Did you eat the same as everyone else there or did you get any kind of special, or worse, treatment for being American?
I'm sure my treatment was better than the average North Korean citizen. I thought about that a lot during my captivity. At one point we were held in a jail with prisoners in the cell next to mine. But later when we were moved to Pyongyang I was held alone in a room. The food was decent and simple. Small bowl of rice, small plate of fish or vegetables.
Hey Laura, thanks for doing this AMA. Are you still close with Euna Lee after all this time being home?
Euna and I don't keep in constant contact, but we do check-in with each other regularly. Our experience definitely bonded us for life.
Thank you very much for responding! What kinds of books did they allow you to read? And I would just like to say that I am so glad you have regained your freedom. It certainly makes me realize how the most crucial aspects of life are the ones most often taken for granted.
My family sent me books through the Swedish Embassy (since the US and NK don't have any formal direct relations). They were then given to the authorities in NK. I read a lot of the classics like Twain and Bronte.
Did you miss to include anything about your experience while you were detained in north korea ,if so what did you not mention in any articles?
I've been pretty open about my experience being detained in North Korea, but there are little things that I may not have shared. The first time I heard my guard hum a tune, I was brought to tears. It was the first time I'd heard music in many weeks and I was so overwhelmed emotionally, I just broke down.
Who decided to go into journalism first: You or Lisa?
My sister definitely influenced me. I was in high school and college when she was traveling the world bringing home stories about the Taliban in Afghanistan, or human rights issues in Tibet. It gave me a bigger window into a world that was increasingly seeming smaller and smaller. I started out working as a researcher for a writer for the LA Times, then followed in my sister's footsteps by getting into TV journalism--that was the dominant medium for young people at the time. Now it's the Internet, which is why I'm super excited to be working in the digital space.
Shortly after you were released from North Korea, I saw you and your family having a picnic in Dolores Park in San Francisco. I had been following your story closely, so in addition to being a bit star-struck, I was moved to tears by the fact that you all looked so happy to be reunited. I can't imagine what that must have felt like.
OK, anyway, here's my question: If you could invite any three people (living or dead) to a dinner party, who would they be?
Thanks for the kind words. Dolores Park is the best! I'd probably invite Jesus, Buddha and The Prophet. Hopefully those three could work on solving some of the issues we've got going on.
Thank you for hosting this AMA.
What has been your favorite story to cover?
What advice can you give to people in communications (perhaps something you learned over the course of your career?)?
Hi! I'm not sure I can single out a favorite story. I've met so many interesting people around the world over the years, some of whom have such fascinating stories that need to be told. I once got to visit a native tribe in the Amazon in Brazil. They were hunters and gatherers wearing the traditional clothing (loin cloth), and playing innocent games like throwing mangoes at each other. What surprised me was when I toured their huts--each hut was equipped with a satellite dish and they were addicted to Brazilian telenovelas. It was amazing to see that even such a primitive region, modern conveniences were seeping in. As for advice--be a voracious reader, and intent listener.
is there an ad hoc or formal support network for detainees (e.g. do you have a message board where you all hang out)?
Not as far as I'm aware of.
What was the attitude of your fellow prisoners like? Was there any type of camaraderie or plans to escape or anything?
I was held alone. But I definitely day-dreamed of different far-fetched escape plans.
Hi Laura Ling! Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck?
Definitely the horse-sized duck -- with a solid kick to the beak!
Thank you for this answer and doing this AMA.
Many Americans do not get to travel outside the country, and those that do generally do not venture into NK or provinces experiencing anti-minority violence in Myanmar.
In your travels, what have you encountered that most challenged your perceptions of your destination?
What were you able to learn that someone would have been unable to had they not traveled their personally?
And how can we combat misperception(s) of other countries (be they negative or 'positive')?
We hear the normal vitriol between North Korea and the US and much of the talk seems to center around nuclear arms, threats and hostilities. Sometimes the picture of the average citizens gets lost. That we all want the same things in life. Turkey is one of my favorite places in the world because it's a Muslim majority democracy so there are a lot of cool juxtapositions that challenge perceptions--women in headscarves walking with women in jeans in front of a mosque with people drinking beer. Travel has a been such an eye-opener for me on so many levels.
From your wiki - You guys got blamed for this: "Lee Chan-woo, a Christian pastor who ran various North Korean refugee aid programs in China, had his house searched by Chinese police on March 19 and was then deported from the country in April. Five refugee safe-houses he ran were also shut down."
Were those safehouse shutdowns a result of the information you had on you when you got caught?
How much information did you have on you when you got caught about locations of safe houses and such?
I did hear that a safe house for Chinese-Korean children was shut down after our visit in China, but that thankfully the children were safe. We were extremely careful interviewing the people who shared their stories with us and did not have any info about locations. But their safety and security weighed heavily on me. It's a lesson to journalists about the importance of safeguarding sources.
Hi Laura, thank you for doing an AMA! I know I am just one of many who completely worship you for your bravery and your commitment to journalism.
If your daughter grew up and told you she was going to be a journalist like you and report in a dangerous place, would you try to dissuade her?
You are very kind. I'd prefer my daughter go into a STEM related field like her dad, because we need more women leaders in this area. But if she's passionate about journalism, I'll support her 100%...and put a GPS tracking device on her.
Thank you for hosting this AMA. We're excited to have you be our speaker at the YWCA Utah LeaderLuncheon. Anything you'd like the women/men of Utah to know before you join us in Salt Lake?
Thanks! Just that I'm excited to be supporting such an amazing organization that has worked to improve the lives of women in the area. See you in Salt Lake!
Hi Laura! I remember watching one of your stories on E! network about Sarah Kolb. What did you take away from the story? What was the most difficult thing in covering it?
That was a tough story to cover--I actually had nightmares during the time. Such a gruesome murder at the hands of teenagers. It also showed how intense being a teenager can be. We often say that teens have so much "drama." But it's those years when people experience some of the most intense emotions that they've ever felt.
Is the poverty in North Korea REALLY as bad as the media portrays it to be? It shows rail thin children dying everywhere of starvation.
I'm not an expert on the current situation. Though things have definitely improved over the years. The country is not in that same state of dire famine that they were in in the 90's, but hunger and food insecurity are a real issue.
Hi Laura, thanks for taking the time!
Did you ever feel less safe as a woman traveling through the world? What advice would you give young women confronting the challenges often presented both in regards to that and in regards to navigating a career?
I've rarely felt less safe being a women, but have been in very patriarchal societies that don't regard women as equal to men. As for traveling, there are various women travel groups that you might find interesting. I recently spoke at the Women's Travel Fest and they had all sorts of cool discussions and tips about women traveling alone.
Hello Laura! You've probably already been asked this question, but I'll ask it anyway! What was it like after you finally were released from North Korea, i.e. was there anything that you were excited to see again, forgot about, etc.?
Listening to music was a treasure. Long walks. Seeing the stars at night. I craved Pizza. Technology did overwhelm me. I didn't get back on Facebook for a year. And just recently got on Twitter, after accidentally deleting a few thousand follower requests. Oops. I'm not great at social networking. But you can still follow me if you like at @lauraling.
What's your favorite airline: both domestically and internationally?
I'm kind of hating on all domestic airlines right now. I think I've had delays and cancellations on nearly every flight I've taken recently. For international, I love Singapore airlines.
As a mom and prominent journalist, what is your best advice on being able to "juggle it all" without losing your sanity and while still climbing the ladder or Leaning In?
One of the most difficult challenges is juggling it all. I practice gratitude every day and read to my kids every night.