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.”
Under threat of transfer to a prison colony and almost certain death, Mr. Jenkins was routinely assigned to socialist toil. Sometimes it was weaving fishing nets, sometimes teaching English to North Korean military personnel. Sometimes it was acting in North Korean films, including one celebrating the North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968. (Mr. Jenkins played the captain of a U.S. aircraft carrier.) With characteristic inefficiency, the North Koreans shot the scenes in the order in which they would appear in the film, breaking down the sets each time and then rebuilding them when needed.
Thanks to Kim Il Sung’s “glorious benevolence,” as the North Koreans called it, Mr. Jenkins and his American comrades were eventually provided with female personal “cooks.” They were expected to serve the state as another set of watching eyes and, as it happened, as “unofficial wives” — potential consorts. The first words that Mr. Jenkins’s own cook said to him were: “I am not cooking for an American dog.” Relations between them, he observes, “went down from there.”
One of North Korea’s cruelest policies was to intersect bittersweetly with Mr. Jenkins’s life. Beginning sometime in the mid-1970s, the regime began kidnapping young Japanese women, some as young as 13, snatching them off streets near beaches in Japan and conveying them to North Korea to fulfill various tasks for its intelligence service. One such young woman was Hitomi Soga, seized along with her mother, stuffed into a black sack, taken by submarine to North Korea and, after a suitable “adjustment period,” delivered to Mr. Jenkins’s home and made to live with him, presumably to bolster the morale of a cold-war trophy.
Mr. Jenkins’s minders, he says, encouraged him to rape her. Instead he treated her with kindness and respect. Before long, the two fell in love, a bond apparently made all the stronger by the suffering both had endured at the hands of their common tormentors. Marriage followed, along with three children, one of whom died at birth. The whereabouts of Hitomi’s mother remain unknown to this day.
In 2002, North Korea unexpectedly acknowledged its kidnapping program and Hitomi was repatriated to Japan. Mr. Jenkins and the couple’s two daughters followed 18 months later. At that point, he turned himself in to American authorities in Tokyo, becoming the longest-missing U.S. deserter ever to report again for duty. The U.S. Army sentenced him, humanely, to 30 days in the brig. “Going AWOL to avoid combat is a serious crime,” Mr. Jenkins writes, “and abandoning troops under your command is one of the worst things a military man can do. . . . I am sorry for that, and I have spent my life having to live with my conscience and the consequence of my actions on that day.”
However we judge Mr. Jenkins’s actions so many years ago, “The Reluctant Communist” is itself an act of redemption. This extraordinary book opens a window on a world of fathomless evil, and it tells a heartbreaking story — of a life lived in adversity and conducted with a mixture of fortitude, resignation, tenderness and regret. Clearly Charles Robert Jenkins emerged from his years of ordeal with his Americanness intact. True patriotism can come in many forms.
Mr. Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary, writes daily for connectingthedots.us.com.