A North Korean tale of redemption and hopeFew people in history have been forced to bow as deep as former U.S. soldier Charles Robert Jenkins for a moment of madness.
One rash act on a bitterly cold winter’s night on the border between North and South Korea more than 40 years ago has exacted a heavy toll on the North Carolina native.
In “The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea,” published this month by the University of California Press, Jenkins relates his tale.
It is 1964 and Sergeant Jenkins is stationed at Camp Clinch, “hard up against the edge of the DMZ.” His military record to this point is spotless, but he is terrified he will get sent to fight in Vietnam.
On the night of Jan. 4, 1965, Jenkins drinks a bellyful of beer and deserts the men he is leading on patrol. He walks straight through a minefield into North Korea.
“I went AWOL [absent without leave] for many of the same reasons that thousands of young, desperate, misguided soldiers go AWOL every year,” writes Jenkins.
He insists he was never a communist sympathizer and that the plan was to reach Russia and then the United States to face an inevitable court martial. His plan went horribly awry.
“I was so ignorant. I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes there, they almost never get out,” Jenkins explains.
The full story of Jenkins’ life in North Korea emerged in 2002 when former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to Pyongyang to secure the release of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents.
One of the kidnapped was Hitomi Soga, who had married Jenkins in August 1980 in North Korea. The Jenkins family were eventually allowed to leave North Korea and they settled in Japan in 2004, where they live today.
Jenkins co-authored The Reluctant Communist with American journalist Jim Frederick, Time magazine’s Tokyo bureau chief from 2002 to 2006. Frederick spent two months in 2005 on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, interviewing Jenkins. The collaboration led to the Japanese-language publication “To Tell the Truth.” The Reluctant Communist is the English-language edition of that book.
What drew Frederick to the project was the singularity of Jenkins’ story. “He is a person who has led a life that is 100 percent unique,” Frederick said in a telephone interview this week from his home in Chicago where he is writing a book about the Iraq conflict.
“At first our relationship was businesslike, and I saw him [Jenkins] a specimen” says Frederick. But during the course of the interviews, which were a challenge at first because of Jenkins’ thick North Carolina accent, Frederick says he began to respect Jenkins for how he managed to endure the hardship of life in North Korea.
“He’s a good man. There is so much that is redemptive, sweet and heart-warming about the story,” said Frederick, emphasizing that Jenkins’ tale is one of recovery and eventual deliverance rather than a narrative full of political intrigue and espionage.
Forced to stay in North Korea, Jenkins claims, the abscondee suffered starvation rations, beatings, inadequate medical treatment, self-criticism sessions, constant surveillance and a never-ending drudge of ideology training for year after year.
And then he met Hitomi in 1980 and they had two kids. “Their story reads like a novel,” says Frederick, who remains close friends with Jenkins. “He made a mistake and it followed him but he tried to put it right.”
When he saw his chance to leave North Korea in 2004, he did so at enormous personal risk and he did it for his daughters, Frederick explains.
By Frederick’s own admission, The Reluctant Communist is a short book at 192 pages, but he doesn’t think Jenkins is holding back. “It [the story] is pretty much all there. It’s a short book but he didn’t do much in North Korea. The years just went by.”
The book leaves unanswered questions, though. Jenkins admits he came into contact at times with foreign diplomats and students in North Korea. Could he not have slipped them a note pleading for help to escape?
Along with three other U.S. servicemen who deserted their units in the 1960s, Jenkins tried to escape once, in 1966, via the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang. The plan failed and they didn’t try again, it seems.
“After that, he [Jenkins] pretty much gave up and was resigned to living out his life in North Korea,” says Frederick.
This is an absorbing tale about a misguided, low-key guy who spent most of his life trying to right a huge error of judgement.
By Michael Gibb Deputy Editor [email@example.com]