Inside the Nightmare
The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
by Charles Robert Jenkins
with Jim Frederick
University of California. 192 pp. $24.95
An American soldier vanishes into freezing darkness while patrolling the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of the Korean peninsula in the mid-1960’s. Has he been kidnapped? Has he deserted? Or did he defect to join the Communist cause? Nobody outside of North Korea will know for sure until the same soldier reappears at a U.S. Army base in Japan to face his court martial. By then, it is September 2004, nearly four decades since his disappearance.
That soldier is Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins. He has now given us his story in The Reluctant Communist, a harrowing account of an ordinary man’s long sojourn in the nearest thing to Dante’s Inferno that can be found in the land of the living.
Jenkins was one of eight children born into a dirt-poor family in rural North Carolina. At fifteen he enrolled in the National Guard by convincing his mother to lie about his age. Enlistment in the Army came three years later. By 1964, he was stationed in Korea, where he was assigned to lead aggressive patrols along the DMZ, a duty he felt was “not what I signed up for.”
Rumors swirled that his unit would soon be shipped out to Vietnam, a prospect that evidently terrified him. He began drinking heavily, while scheming to find a way out. Finally, he alighted on the idea of walking across the DMZ and surrendering to the North Koreans, who, he ignorantly reasoned, would pass him along to the Soviet Union, there to be repatriated to the United States. “I know I was not thinking clearly,” he writes, “and a lot of my decisions don’t make sense now, but at the time they had a logic to them that made my actions seem almost inevitable.”
Little did Jenkins understand that he had chosen to enter a “demented prison.” The North Koreans soon figured out that their captive could tell them little of value about the disposition of U.S. forces in Korea. But he did have some propaganda value—which the North Koreans would fitfully put to use by casting him as a villainous American in their films—as well as a more practical function teaching English at a military academy.
For the most part, though, the North Koreans never quite knew what to do with Jenkins or the three other American deserters living in Pyongyang into whose company he was thrown: Larry Abshier, James Dresnok, and Jerry Parrish. None of these men was a Communist sympathizer; rather, like Jenkins, they were “pretty much total f—k-ups as soldiers.” Now they had little choice but to become—through relentless memorization and “self-criticism” drills—experts in the thoughts of North Korea’s Stalinist dictator Kim Il-Sung:
All through the week we were supposed to keep a diary, where we wrote about the times we failed to live up to Kim Il-Sung’s teachings. Perhaps we left the house one day without permission, or perhaps the front door broke because we had not tended to its upkeep well enough—both of those would be good entries for the diary. Then we used those diary entries for our criticism. There are variations to the self-criticism session, but basically you stand at attention and confess all your failings to those superiors present.
This was not the least of the peculiarities of existence in North Korea. There was the relentless spying, which intruded on every aspect of Jenkins’s life, including his sex life after he was assigned a “cook” who doubled as a consort. And there was the absurdity of the regime’s methods: “Sometimes, you would meet Comrade Pak, and the very next week the exact same man would introduce himself as Comrade Lee.”
Above all, there was cruelty and deprivation. Jenkins is at pains to underscore the relative comforts that he and his fellow Americans in North Korea enjoyed as “trophies” of the regime—meaning, principally, that they never quite starved and were never homeless. Yet from the beginning their lives consisted mainly of desperate efforts to obtain enough food and fresh water to survive: stealing coal tar to plug the holes of a dinghy they used for fishing; scavenging old tires for nylon to string together fishing nets; fattening a hog in the hopes of feeding off it during the winter, only to have it stolen by local cadres.
In one particularly gruesome incident, the North Koreans, with neither warning nor anesthetic, undertook to remove a U.S. Army tattoo from Jenkins’s left forearm. “The cadets holding me down were laughing the whole time, and for weeks afterward they would snicker in class or when they saw me in the hallways.”
In 1980, Jenkins’s life took a fateful turn for the better. Since North Korea enforces a policy of strict racial purity, it was inevitable that the Americans would be matched with other foreigners—most of whom were abductees. One of them was Hitomi Soga, a young Japanese woman who, together with her mother, had been kidnapped by North Korean agents from their home town on Sado Island, and, after a two-year interval for adjustment, was abruptly deposited in Jenkins’s house.
In Soga, Jenkins found a soulmate, as she did in him. They were married within weeks. The marriage produced three children: a son who died shortly after birth and two daughters who survived. As a family, they seem to have managed as happy a domestic life as could be possible in increasingly abject circumstances that included frequent power outages and bitter cold, rats that came up through the plumbing, and sewage that “ran raw onto open ground about forty yards from the house.” There was also increasing lawlessness, mainly driven by famine, which often required Jenkins to stay up all night guarding his vegetable patch against thieves, some of them soldiers.
Most terrifying were the insistent hints from party cadres that they intended to enroll his children in Pyongyang’s foreign-language academy—a school for spies. Though Jenkins had warned his daughters that North Korea was “not the real world,” one of them was gradually taken in by the relentless propaganda. Indeed, he fully expected to lose both his children to the regime’s designs until the astonishing day in September 2002 when Kim Jong-Il, the new dictator, suddenly admitted to the world the existence of five living Japanese abductees, including Soga.
Thus began an excruciating diplomatic dance that led to the family’s exit from North Korea. It began with Soga’s departure a month after Kim’s announcement. Before leaving, Soga was given lavish presents to take to her Japanese relatives—previously unseen glimpses of the luxuries that Kim reserved for himself and his cronies behind high walls.
As for Jenkins, the regime did what it could to terrorize him into staying, warning him that the U.S. Army would be merciless in judging his desertion. Jenkins came to believe the worst, but remained intent on getting out with his girls. In July 2004, nearly two years after saying goodbye to his wife, he and his daughters left North Korea.
Later that year, the U.S. Army sentenced Jenkins to a total of 30 days in the brig. He now lives with his wife on Sado Island, where he works in a bakery shop. To this day, the fate of Soga’s mother remains unknown.
Are the details of this story reliable? In a foreword, Jenkins’s co-author, Jim Frederick of Time, writes that on numerous occasions Jenkins “told me something that either sounded insane, trumped up, or nonsensical.” But Frederick’s doubts were repeatedly dispelled when he was able to verify independently many of Jenkins’s claims. Throughout, moreover, Jenkins is so harsh a judge of his own failings that it is difficult to believe he has embellished anything or omitted much.
Were Jenkins’s experiences representative of the broader reality of North Korea? The answer is: not at all. Despite the numbing hardships of his own life, many ordinary North Koreans endured far worse.
Often we [the Americans] would head down to the work site [of a nearby prison camp] to see if the guards had any kerosene, gasoline, or cigarettes they were willing to barter. On New Year’s Day of 1971, we headed down there to see if they had anything new. Since it was a holiday, the medium-sentence prisoners were given a rare day off, so the guards filled the work detail with harder-luck, long-term inmates who were in for serious crimes against the government, like trying to escape North Korea or criticizing the government. Crimes like that were usually given a fifteen-year sentence, but the work was so brutal, it was as good as a death sentence, and everybody knew it. All four of us were heading up the riverbank when one of the guards waved us away. At the same time, we saw one of the prisoners running in the other direction. We headed back home double time, but not before we heard a rifle shot ring out and saw two more guards head slowly in the direction the inmate had headed.The next day, with the regular prisoners digging as usual, we came back to the guard and asked him what happened. “He was making a run for it,” said the guard, “so we stopped him.” “Did you take him to the hospital?” we asked. “The hospital?” he laughed. “Hell, no.” “What did you do with him?” we asked. “We took him back to the prison and made him dig his own grave,” he said. “Then we shot him.”
As a young man, Jenkins made a terrible mistake. With The Reluctant Communist, he has achieved much more than the measure of redemption demanded of anyone guilty of the crime of desertion. His book is one of the most important and devastating accounts of life inside a totalitarian society to appear in many years.