“Our choices are what makes us who we are. Nobody knows that better than me.”
So ends the autobiography of Charles Robert Jenkins, the only American to spend most of his life in North Korea and get out to tell the tale.
Jenkins spent most of his life with three other US military border-crossers, including Dresnok, whose story is told in Dan Gordon’s film, Crossing the Line. Like Dresnok, Jenkins did not walk across the DMZ because he thought he was going to live in some socialist paradise. Dresnok had nowhere else to go, while Jenkins simply did not want to have to go on combat missions, either in Korea or in Vietnam – where he was to be posted next. Naively, and not thinking terribly straight, he thought he could cross the border, hand himself in to the Russians, and soon be headed back home. Forty years later, thanks to the Japanese, he made it.
In that forty years, he spent most of his time with the three other deserters, got married, had children and, by North Korean standards, had a reasonable standard of living. But the irony of his ultimate reluctance to return to face the music with the US Miliatary authorities is that his punishment from the court martial was thirty days’ detention (with five days off for good behaviour), while the sentence he endured north of the DMZ was forty years in a country that is one big prison camp.
It is a moving story, and a revealing one. Jenkins would not be living in Japan now if it had not been for Koizumi’s engagement with North Korea. The diplomatic bombshell that went off in 2002 was Kim Jong-il’s admission that North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens to train North Koreans as spies, and one of them happened to be married to Jenkins.
What we learn from Jenkins is that the North Koreans’ kidnapping activities were not just targeted at Japanese citizens, but just about any nationality they could get their hands on.
It is clear that the North Koreans didn’t know what to do with their American deserters. But after being forced to learn the teachings of Kim Il-sung parrot fashion they were admitted to North Korean citizenship. In one bizarre incident after another, the Americans and we the readers come to realise that North Koreans live on a completely different planet from the rest of us.
Take their attitude to women: once admitted to citizenship, the four soldiers were provided with cooks who were also expected to act as concubines (and Jenkins was reprimanded for not having enough sex with his). Take their somewhat male-centric view of gynaecology: the cooks in question were given their assignments because they were thought to be barren. They were all divorcees who had failed to provide their ex-husbands with offspring. When one of them fell pregnant by one of the Americans, the “Organization” realised they needed to learn a thing or two about the birds and the bees. And, because the evil Americans could not be permitted to father children by pure-blooded Korean maidens, kidnapped foreign women were provided as wives.
Jenkins was a bit of a handyman, and how he discovered some of his botch-it-yourself tips is anyone’s guess. Did you know that nylon fishing nets last a whole lot longer if boiled in pig’s blood? That mixing coal with clay makes it burn more slowly (maybe the latter is obvious, but the technique for executing this is less so). All sorts of handy skills such as candle-making, or handy scams such as bartering dried corn for moonshine or corn noodles, made the difference between a life which was just about bearable and one which was insufferable.
Jenkins learned a few scraps about the outside world during his forty years north of the DMZ: he knew about the Panmunjom axe-murders and the USS Pueblo incident through local broadcasts; but he also managed to secure a radio (from which he learned about Kim Jong-il’s startling admission to Koizumi) and also got to see some Micheal Jackson videos and Bruce Willis films via smuggled VHS videos. But his daughters refused to believe that the Eddy Murphy film “Welcome to America” could be remotely plausible, because the propaganda they were fed by the Organization was that blacks were kept as slaves in America. “This isn’t the real world,” Jenkins told his daughters, but it was the only world they knew.
Jenkins wrote his book – with the assistance of Time journalist Jim Frederick – to help fund a trip back to the US to visit his family. He now lives quietly in Japan with his wife, working in a biscuit factory. The book is an extraordinary tale from someone who lived the best part of his life in a place that is totally incomprehensible.