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American Journalist Euna Lee Recalls Time In North Korean Labor Camp


For 21-year-old Otto Warmbier, a student from the University of Virginia who had taken what was billed as an adventure vacation, the sentence was swift and severe. Warmbier was part of a tour group in North Korea. He took a propaganda poster from his hotel there. He was prosecuted for an act of hostility against the state and made a tearful confession in court.


OTTO WARMBIER: I wish that the United States administration never manipulated people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries.

SIEGEL: Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Euna Lee must know what he's going through. She's a South Korean-born American journalist who, along with a colleague from Current TV, was arrested near North Korea's border with China back in 2009. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor and served 140 days. It took a visit by former President Bill Clinton to win their pardon. Euna Lee wrote a book about the experience called "The World Is Bigger Now," and she joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

EUNA LEE: Hi, Robert. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Based on your experience in North Korea, what do you think young Otto Warmbier is going through right now?

LEE: Oh, it was really heartbreaking to see him crying on TV. He didn't probably think about that he would get an 15-year sentence. Hopefully he will come home before he is actually sent to a labor camp, but it is possible that he would be sent to a labor camp anytime soon.

SIEGEL: We just heard a clip of a confession. It didn't, frankly, sound like a sincere confession. Did you go through that? Were you presented with a confession or language that you were supposed to read in court?

LEE: Well, technically, they - when I was interrogated, they did not force me to put a word in my confession. But when you are in emotionally and physically very unstable condition, then you will want to make a statement that your captor want to hear.

SIEGEL: You'll say what they want to hear, you're saying. What kind of prison would you imagine, based on your experience, he would be held in?

LEE: In my case, I was very lucky that I wasn't actually sent to a prison cell after the trial. But it will be probably a place - very isolated place that he will be by himself - no contact - human contact beside guards.

SIEGEL: Did you feel that as an American prisoner in North Korea, you were being treated differently than North Korean prisoners were being treated?

LEE: I think so. Compared to how North Korean prisoners are treated according to all the statement they've made by North Korean defectors, my condition was much better. I was fed three times a day. It was a simple meal, but still. And I had a bathroom. So the conditions was much better. But if Warmbier goes to the labor camp, that might be a slightly different story.

SIEGEL: What about the people who guarded you? Were you able to talk with them, come to know them a little bit?

LEE: At the beginning. They were actually told not to talk to me, so they would get in trouble. They always worked as a pair, so there is no one person in a room. It would be always two people. So they would watch each other to see if they were making any conversation with me. And one time, actually, when I made a conversation - because we are all human being, right? So we made the small talk, and they - I overheard that one of guards got in trouble.

SIEGEL: With hindsight, of course, you - we all know that you served 140 days, not 12 years. Going forward, you couldn't have known that.

LEE: Yeah, yeah. It is true that the sentence was 12 years. But it seemed - every day felt very long because there's nothing you do. You just deal with your four walls in your room. So you don't have anyone to talk, so your day goes very long.

SIEGEL: Euna Lee, thank you very much for talking with us today about it.

LEE: Thank you for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: Journalist Euna Lee spoke to us from San Francisco. Back in 2009, she and her colleague from Current TV were arrested and tried in North Korea where she served 140 days in prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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