For Lisa Ling, the 25th anniversary of National Geographic Channel‘s “Explorer” series is a time for celebration and … reflection.
In the special two-hour retrospective “Explorer: 25 Years” airing Monday, April 19 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, we’re reminded that the host and correspondent had gone undercover traveling with a Nepalese eye surgeon for the “Inside North Korea” show in 2007.
In the secret footage, Ling comments that Americans are not welcome in the country and that the North Koreans’ devotion to their “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il appears simultaneously fervent and fearful.
Two years later, Ling’s sister Laura Ling and fellow journalist Euna Lee were detained in North Korea after they filmed refugees along the Chinese border. Although they were sentenced to 12 years in a labor prison, they were eventually pardoned and released in August following a visit to the country by former President Bill Clinton.
It’s not lost on Lisa Ling that her own documentary on North Korea may have been a factor in her sister’s imprisonment.
“I certainly think that my being there affected the situation, and we certainly have talked about it,” she tells Zap2it. “When I left North Korea in 2007, I never thought I’d have any dealings with the North Korean government again. We all know that that situation did not last. We got a gift last year in my sister’s return. We just feel really grateful for it.”
Ling’s sister has since left Current TV to focus on her family and personal life. The siblings have collaborated on a book coming out May 18th that will detail the ordeal and diplomatic efforts.
Ling observes, “It’s strange that two sisters in one family have had this kind of experience in North Korea, and I truly hope that both of our experiences will give people a desire to know more because the situation in North Korea is very, very grim, and the crisis on the border of North Korea and China is a real humanitarian crisis.”
Ling discusses a few of her other experiences on “Explorer” in the video below. If you listen closely, you can hear her sing the first few catchy notes of the National Geographic theme song by Elmer Bernstein.
Ling’s involvement is only a fraction of what’s covered in the “Explorer: 25 Years” special. It also includes “Finding Titanic,” which offered the first glimpse of the ocean liner’s undersea wreckage; a study of mummies worldwide; the discovery of the mouse lemur; a look inside Guantanamo’s detainment area; a visit to a marijuana farm and countless other topics about world culture, history and natural science.
Nat Geo’s explorers are a curious, tenacious and intrepid group of people who put their lives on the line in pursuit of that great discovery, one-of-a-kind footage or compelling story. The job isn’t glamorous, easy or even comfortable, but the effects can be felt globally.
“I think that everyone who works on an ‘Explorer’ show takes risk into consideration, always,” acknowledges Ling, “but one of the things I can proudly say is that I’m almost certain that every person who does work for an ‘Explorer’ show feels passionately about this kind of work, feels passionately about what they’re trying to do.”
Perhaps the most iconic image from the cover of National Geographic magazine was one taken of an Afghan girl with piercing green eyes in the ’80s. Seventeen years later, the “Explorer” crew set out to discover the name that went with that unforgettable face.
With only a photo to guide them, the crew interviewed the locals, used iris-matching identification equipment and had their hopes raised and then dashed by numerous false leads. In the end, however, the efforts paid off, and Sharbat Gula was found.
Ling adds, “It isn’t just producing a reality show. It’s producing things that will really make a lasting impression forever.”
‘Explorer’ times and TV listings
Lisa Ling takes the cake at National Geographic ‘Explorer: 25 Years’ party
Zap2it’s melting pot: Tracing deep ancestry with National Geographic
Zap2it scrapes for DNA with National Geographic
Photo credits: National Geographic Channel