The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty- Year Imprisonment in North Korea by Charles Robert Jenkins (University of California Press)

reluctant_communist_cvr “In January of 1965, twenty-four-year-old U.S. Army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins abandoned his post in South Korea, walked across the DMZ, and surrendered to communist North Korean soldiers standing sentry along the world’s most heavily militarized border.”

There has been a bit of controversy surrounding this book in the United States, Jenkins being an army deserter and all. But how can readers not be fascinated by the story of someone who lived and managed to survive for more than forty years in the reclusive Stalinist regime of North Korea? The biggest critics seem to be those who already have their preconceived opinions about him and are probably ignorant of most of the facts surrounding his story. Take for instance, the lady who says, "I don't know why he chose to come out now if he liked it there so much." This is obviously the opinion of someone who has not read his book.

It’s an extraordinary story because it is not only about Jenkins’ army desertion.  For the forty- plus years Jenkins spent in North Korea, he says he's lived a fairly ordinary life. Perhaps he lived a little better than some of North Korea's own citizens, but that doesn't mean he's had an easy time of it. He claims he was young, drunk and stupid when he crossed the DMZ, afraid that he was going to be sent to serve in Vietnam. He didn’t realize that his decision would have him stuck in another country for the next forty years

We probably would never have heard of Jenkins if it hadn't been for Japan’s biggest news of the decade when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang.  It was at this historic meeting that Kim Jong-il admitted to his country’s program of abducting Japanese nationals and having them serve as instructors in the Japanese language and customs at spy schools located throughout North Korea.  Unfortunately, the talks were not as productive as had been hoped because the total number of abductees could not be confirmed with North Korea maintaining that there were only thirteen, with just five still surviving. One of the survivors was a woman named Hitomi Soga, Jenkins’ wife.

Jenkins fills us in on his life in North Korea in chronological order. He tells of his surrender-- which he had believed would be a temporary condition that would lead to his being rapidly sent back to the States where he would face a short jail sentence –- to his indoctrination into the communist regime. He describes meeting and being imprisoned with other defectors (who were mostly running from the law, or as Jenkins says in his own words, “were total fuck-ups as soldiers”), people who would eventually become his closest friends and, at times, his worst enemies.  A bit of sunshine and hope is visited upon him in 1980 when he marries Soga and starts a family.

The story becomes even more interesting when Soga and a few other abductees manage to escape from the country with the help of the Japanese government).  The abductees were given permission to visit Japan and their relatives on the condition that they would return to North Korea in a couple of weeks.  Instead they formally removed the pins of Kim Jong-il (which they were required to wear) on Japanese national television and refused to go back.  And so begins a new chapter as Soga works hard to get the rest of her family out of North Korea.

Before vilifying Jenkins, one should read this story of a young man who was scared, homesick and drunk, who now admits that he made the worst decision of his life by crossing the DMZ into North Korea.  It’s an inspirational story as well as the story of making a terrible choice-- he survives, finds love, has children, and in the end, is able to leave North Korea to join his wife in Japan.  Their children, who were both born and raised in North Korea, find themselves becoming new Japanese citizens, but that will probably be the subject of another book.  ----by Ernie Hoyt