THE RELUCTANT COMMUNIST: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
The wire service accounts of U.S. Army officer Charles Robert Jenkins' defection to North Korea in January, 1965 were succinct and somewhat skeptical as this UPI dispatch from 1/27/65 demonstrates:
Communist North Korea Tuesday claimed that Charles Robert Jenkins, a U.S. soldier, defected to the Reds from the 1st Cavalry Division stationed in South Korea.
There were a few other stories about the wayward sergeant in the winter of 1965 like the one from the AP headlined "Tar Heel Says Red Life Good," but for the most part Charles Robert Jenkins vanished from the public consciousness after this initial wave of coverage. That is until his miraculous return from the North Korean abyss in July of 2004. Exactly what transpired during the intervening eternity is the subject of Jenkins' harrowing memoir THE RELUCTANT COMMUNIST: My Desertion, Court Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea that he wrote with Time magazine senior editor Jim Frederick. The book is being published in English for the first time by the University of California Press on March 25, 2008 (it is available for early purchase through many book sellers including Amazon). An earlier Japanese edition was released in 2005.
From the thoughtful foreword by Mr. Frederick who lays out the context of Jenkins' bizarre story (including a brief but efficient re-cap of the Korean War and its aftermath leading up to Jenkins' crossing the 38th parallel in 1965) through the final page, THE RELUCTANT COMMUNIST is absolutely riveting. Imagine being able to read a book written by an astronaut who had resided on Mars for forty years and one begins to appreciate just what Jenkins has to offer to the reader. This might sound like hyperbole, but the free world knows about as much about Mars as it does the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK).
It is all too easy from the vantage point of 2008 to condemn Jenkins for his rash, beer-fueled decision to "cross the line," but the reality is that the 24-year-old soldier had his reasons—however misguided and misinformed they might have been—to abandon his troops and step through the looking glass into the Communist Never-Never land of North Korea. It must be pointed out that these actions are something that Jenkins apologizes for repeatedly over the course of the book. To adequately comprehend the harshness of life patrolling the deceptively named "demilitarized zone" (DMZ) during the approximate period Jenkins was stationed there, it might serve the reader well to see Daniel Gordon's fantastic 2006 documentary CROSSING THE LINE (about another U.S. Army defector named Joseph James Dresnok). The film, which features amazing archival footage of the palpably tense DMZ, is an excellent companion piece to THE RELUCTANT COMMUNIST and also includes some rare scenes of Jenkins himself shortly before his return to freedom.
While Jenkins spends some time describing his early, pre-DPRK life, the meat of his story begins when he literally falls down a hill after leaving his night patrol squad to allegedly check to see if a road below them is clear. The confused and drunk young solider took this plunge as a sign that his fate was sealed. He threw away his distress flair and marched on to his destiny with an improvised white surrender flag tied around the barrel of his M-14 rifle. On the morning of January 5, 1965 he was taken in by a patrol of North Korean soldiers and was then subjected to many days of ineffective interrogation sessions. After approximately two weeks Jenkins was moved out of isolation and into a house with three other Army misfits who had crossed over earlier in the 1960s (Private First Class Larry Allen Abshier, Private James Joseph Dresnok, and Specialist Jerry Wayne Parrish).
The long-forgotten fifth and sixth defectors, Private Roy Chung and Private Joseph White came later (1979 and 1982 respectively) and are both reportedly dead. According to a letter from North Korea to White's parents in 1985, their son drowned in the Chongchon River on August 17 of that year. Jenkins states in his memoir that he never met White, but was aware of his defection from a televised rant against the U.S. that the soldier appeared in shortly after his crossing the DMZ. Jenkins does not mention Private Chung at all. He also adamantly denies having had any interaction with the captured crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo during their 11-month imprisonment in 1968.
After the point in the book where Jenkins recounts a failed 1966 attempt by the four Americans to gain political asylum at the Russian embassy in Pyongyang, his tale is mainly a collection of compelling anecdotes about survival. He describes in a simple, conversational yet frequently cynical voice the daily struggle just to stay alive in his new homeland. He also reveals the chances he and his fellow defectors took in defying the rules of their omnipresent government minders (they nicknamed these efforts "freedalisms"). However, the odds of any one of the Americans being executed for these infractions were likely mitigated by the "Great Leader" Kim Il-Sung's reputed belief that the defectors were highly valuable to the state. Indeed, all four were used for various purposes including propaganda, English instruction, film translation (Jenkins recalls translating KRAMER VS. KRAMER) and even breeding!
Jenkins repeatedly declares in his book that he and his compatriots had it much easier than the average citizen of the DPRK. In other words, they were not worked to death in slave labor camps, they did not die of famine and they did not freeze to death during the brutally cold winters. But the details of their daily existence do not exactly sound like Club Med either: Rats running up toilet drains, days without food or water, bug-infested rice, houses whose walls collapsed during the rain, nearly non-existent electricity, it goes on and on. And if that were not enough, there were the times when the Americans turned on one another. Jenkins describes one of many savage beatings he took from the 250 lb. Dresnok at the direction of their government minders (or "leaders"). This episode is all the more shocking because Dresnok seemed to revel in his task. Dresnok denies that these approximately thirty beatings ever took place, but he is still in North Korea and denies most everything Jenkins has said since leaving the country. Because Jenkins is the only surviving defector to return to the free world, his story stands – by default – as the most reliable account of what occurred. That said, with the exception of his revelation that he drank too much (who wouldn't in North Korea!?) Jenkins does come off rather heroically (he defends the malleable and simple-minded Abshier against the bully Dresnok, for instance). However, most of what Jenkins writes rings true which is amazing in and of itself because of the Kafkaesque nature of his life in the DPRK.
Many years into the Americans' residency in North Korea, the mysterious powers-that-be (nicknamed "The Organization" by Jenkins and company) provided them with women who would ultimately become their wives. These women were, for the most part, kidnapped foreigners. Jenkins' wife, Hitomi Soga, for example, was abducted from Japan. The diabolical purpose behind these pairings, according to Jenkins, was to produce mixed-race offspring that could be used as a future generation of spies. Given the fact that Kim Jong-Il ordered the kidnappings of a South Korean filmmaker and his actress wife in order to improve the aesthetic quality of North Korea's motion picture output, spy breeding is not so difficult a concept to believe.
And speaking of the bizarre world of North Korean cinema, if there is one subject that could have been expanded upon in Jenkins' book it is his "acting" career for the regime. In 1980, during his wife's first pregnancy, Jenkins received the order to leave home for a prolonged period and appear as the evil (and bald) American warmonger "Dr. Kelton" in part 20 of the serialized propaganda movie NAMELESS HEROES. Jenkins describes the hilariously low-budget, haphazard methodology of North Korean filmmaking and adds that he acted in dozens of other movies including many that went unfinished and unreleased.
Because NAMELESS HEROES was shown repeatedly on state television, the defectors/actors became quite well known throughout the country and would frequently be stopped on the street for autographs (Jenkins was pleased to accommodate his fans, but refused to answer to the acting credit nom de plume that the North Korean film company saddled him with for his many screen appearances: "Min Hyung-chan"). Jenkins omits the fact that his line delivery in NAMELESS HEROES was so awful that his real-life nemesis Dresnok had to dub in most of his dialogue (a factoid revealed in supplementary material for the DVD of CROSSING THE LINE*). The cosmic weirdness of the four defectors becoming movie stars in North Korea by appearing in these bizarre films deserved an entire chapter, not just a couple of pages.
There are other details that Jenkins leaves out of the book that seem to be odd editorial choices. In his 2005 60 MINUTES profile, for instance, Jenkins told interviewer Scott Pelley that once he and his wife were finally extricated from North Korea he offered to dissolve the marriage because of the circumstances of their original union. This is a poignant revelation that should have been included in the book. It fits with similarly heartbreaking moments that are included such as when Jenkins unsuccessfully tries to explain to one of his state-indoctrinated daughters that they aren't living in the "real world" when she questions the realism of the plot of a bootleg American movie they have just viewed. Also, Jenkins cites specific names, dates and locations associated with important and not-so-important events throughout the book that lead the reader to wonder whether he maintained a diary. But no mention is ever made of this potentially dangerous record keeping activity or how such a journal could have been taken out of the country. If Jenkins did not maintain a diary, one is left wondering how on earth he could recall decades-old events and details so clearly.
The full, unbiased story of the core (Abshier, Dresnok, Parrish and Jenkins) defectors' time in North Korea will never be known because two of the four men are dead (Abshier and Parrish) and the third (Dresnok) has vowed never to leave his adopted homeland. It is also doubtful that the North Korean government's perspective on the history of the four will ever be revealed (however, twenty years ago no one could have predicted that KGB and Stasi files would now be open to researchers). Jenkins theorizes that the U.S. government itself probably fabricated a telegram signed "Charles" that was sent to his mother in 1965 and confirmed his voluntary defection. Jenkins, who denies writing such a document, never went by the name "Charles." Who knows what lurks in the official, and no doubt very thick, files of the defectors that are sitting in Washington and Pyongyang.
Indeed, it would be fascinating to view the whole, strange tale from all of the various angles in one neat package, but it must be remembered that this is Jenkins' personal story and, in this regard, the book does indeed stand on its own merits. It is by any measure an astonishing and thought provoking work that should be read by anyone wanting more than just a glimpse into the secretive society of the DPRK. Despite its minor limitations, Jenkins' memoir provides an exciting window on an unknown world and tells a story of nearly unimaginable endurance.
* CONELRAD obtained a copy of the installment of NAMELESS HEROES that Jenkins appears in (episode 20) and has independently confirmed that Dresnok's voice can be heard throughout most of Jenkins' dialogue.
THE RELUCTANT COMMUNIST: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
By Charles Robert Jenkins with Jim Frederick
Published by the University of California Press
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