Can a deserter, a seeming traitor and a star in a propaganda film produced by a Communist dictatorship also be, in the end, an American patriot? That is one of the questions posed by the life of Charles Robert Jenkins, the author of “The Reluctant Communist.”
Uneducated, dirt poor, from rural North Carolina, Mr. Jenkins joined the U.S. Army in 1958 and rose to the rank of sergeant within three years. He was soon sent to South Korea, where he was assigned to patrols along the demilitarized zone and regularly came under hostile fire. Depressed and drinking heavily, he started searching for a way home. The scheme he cooked up: Cross into North Korea, get handed over to the Russians and then repatriated to the U.S. At most he would face the sanction of a court-martial.
But there was a hitch. “I did not understand,” Mr. Jenkins writes, “that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes there, they almost never get out.” Mr. Jenkins was to spend the next four decades in North Korea. His memoir, written with the help of Jim Frederick, a Time magazine senior editor, is the story of his life in that bizarre and barbaric land.
After his capture, Mr. Jenkins recounts, he was subjected to a none-too-gentle period of interrogation and then brought together with three other Americans who had done the same thing, “all young dumb soldiers from poor backgrounds” like himself whose misbegotten actions turned them into North Korea’s “cold-war trophies.” Their lives were privileged compared with those of ordinary North Koreans, but the physical hardship was extreme: scarce, rotten food, lack of heat and indoor plumbing (not to mention privacy), insect and rat infestation.
But the mental strain was far worse. Complete isolation from the familiar world was a mere backdrop to the ordeal inflicted by an endless procession of Communist Party minders, who monitored Mr. Jenkins’s every move and who strove, by means of compulsory self-criticism sessions and beatings, to inculcate in him the “correct ideology.” Continue reading