The Dear Reader: DPRK Observations & Musings

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The Kindness of Mr. Yee

The most welcome gift in the thoroughly compelling new book Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home (Harper Collins, May 18th) is not the revelation of how a certain Hollywood movie star figured in the college education of one of Laura Ling‘s female guards, that Laura and her producer Mitch Koss first visited Pyongyang in 2002 (!), or that Lisa at a certain point had a preliminary phone conversation with a member of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Rather, it is the character of Mr. Yee, Laura‘s main interrogator.

When he first appears (on page 65), Laura describes him thus: “His hair was well groomed, and he smelled of fresh soap. He looked to be in his late forties. He had a kindness in his eyes that contradicted his stern demeanor.”

The last sentence is key. Without going into further, spoiler details, let’s just say that Laura‘s initial instincts prove to be unerringly correct. Despite the clear imbalance of power and a U.S.-North Korea language divide (Mr. Yee must rely at all times on the services of a third-party translator), the relationship that evolves between Laura and her government assigned handler gradually edges into fatherly territory.

Yee tries to guide Ling through the process in a way that will not just satisfy his superiors but also maximize her chances at making her way back to freedom.

Placed narratively alongside the sisterly bond of Laura and Lisa, the hurlyburly of backroom politics and more, it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of Laura and Mr. Yee. But quite simply, through this book, Ling has put to paper one of the fullest portraits yet of a sympathetic North Korean man, of a type that those of us outside the boundaries of the Hermit Kingdom are normally only exposed to within the context of a refugee or defector tale.

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Filed under: Euna Lee, Laura Ling, Somewhere Inside

4 Responses

  1. Jeremy says:

    I think there was definitely an ulterior motive behind Mr. Yee’s demeanor, but it is interesting nonetheless.

    I didn’t know about Ling and Koss visiting Pyongyang in ’02, either. That is surprising.

  2. Yes, Laura casually mentions at the very beginning of the book (pg. 9) that she and Mitch Koss accompanied a Korean-American tour group to Pyongyang in 2002, for a Channel One report about the annual Arirang festival, monuments, etc. Amazing that this fact did not come out during their captivity.

    As far as Mr. Yee, of course, he is out to get what he wants. But as described by Ling, their relationship does eventually get to a point where he genuinely seems to care for her, partly because of how she (cleverly) interacts with him.

  3. Spelunker says:

    Here is the report from Mitch Koss on his 2002 trip to Pyongyang with two colleagues (one of them was Laura Ling and the other was a Korean-American named Janet Choi but he does not mention either by name).
    Mitch Koss writes about eating dog meat and narrowly achieving his goal of jogging in each of the Axis of Evil countries.

    http://www.blacklistedjournalist.com/column75o9.html

    Janet Choi mentions Laura Ling by first name on page 4 of her reporter’s notebook when writing about how she and Laura were forced to bow to Kim Il-Sung’s statue.

    http://www.channelone.com/news/swf_north_korea/notebook.swf

    • Given what transpired the second time Koss set foot in North Korea, the most strangely resonant part of his 2002 L.A. Times Op Ed (as archived by blacklistedjournalist.com) is his thought that “the North Korean government can’t possibly last.” How wrong he was.

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