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Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick

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The Reluctant Communist

BOOK: The Reluctant Communist
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The Reluctant Communist

My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea

Charles Robert Jenkins

with Jim Frederick


Berkeley Los Angeles London

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the generous contribution to this book provided by the Asian Studies Endowment Fund of the University of California Press Foundation.

Disclaimer: Some images in the printed version of this book are not available for inclusion in the eBook.

University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit

University of California Press
Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

University of California Press, Ltd.
London, England

©2008 by The Regents of the University of California
Foreword © 2008 by Jim Frederick

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jenkins, Charles Robert, 1940–
The reluctant communist: my desertion, court-martial, and forty-year imprisonment in North Korea.
“Japanese edition, To Tell the Truth (Kokuhaku, or Confession), was published by Kadokawa Shoten”—ECIP Dataview. isbn 978-0-520-25333-9 (cloth : alk. paper)
1. Jenkins, Charles Robert, 1940– 2. Korean War, 1950–1953— Personal narratives, American. 3. Korean War, 1950–1953— Desertions—United States. 4. Military deserters—United States—Biography. 5. Americans—Korea (North)—Biography. 6. Defectors—Korea (North)—Biography. 7. Korea (North)—Social life and customs. I. Frederick, Jim, 1971– II. Title
ds921.6.j44 2008

Manufactured in the United States of America
17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 09 08
10 987654321

This book is printed on Natures Book, which contains 50% postconsumer waste and meets the minimum requirements of ansi/niso z39.48–1992 (r 1997) (Permanence of Paper).

For my mother


  1. Super Jenkins
  2. In the Army, and across the DMZ
  3. Housemates
  4. Cooks, Cadets, and Wives
  5. Soga-san
  6. Friends and Strangers
  7. Domestic Life
  8. Hitomi’s Escape
  9. My Escape
  10. Homecomings


My first thought, I remember clearly, was: “This can’t be happening.” Once I registered that it was indeed happening, my second thought was simple: “I’m toast.” It was the morning of September 2, 2004, and, as I did every morning, I was checking the major news sites that covered Japan for any new developments (this being Japan, overnight news was usually an earthquake) or features our competitors had posted since yesterday. I clicked over to the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) website, and there it was: “Exclusive Interview: Four Decades in North Korea. On a cold night in 1965, Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins disappeared from a patrol in South Korea. Forty years later he has resurfaced. In his first interview since leaving North Korea, he tells the Review his story.”

I read it again. And again, making sure it said what I thought it said. It did. This headline was followed by what must have been a three-thousand-word story that included, indeed, live, recent quotes from Jenkins. There was even a photograph of him sitting on his bed in the Tokyo hospital room where he had been holed up for the last several weeks.

This was, for me, a disaster. I had been on the job as Time Magazine’s Tokyo bureau chief since October 2002, and since the day I showed up, Jenkins was the biggest but most elusive story in the country. Just a few weeks before I arrived in Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his first-ever trip to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. During that meeting, Kim made a surprising admission. True to Japan’s long-held suspicions, North Korea, Kim admitted, had systematically kidnapped Japanese citizens throughout the last few decades and forced them to teach Japanese language and customs at the country’s spy schools. Kim, to everyone’s further astonishment, even apologized, saying he did not approve of the program and had already punished the overzealous functionaries who spearheaded it. Negotiations to normalize relations between the two countries would almost immediately break down (and remain broken to this day) over just how many abductees there were and what has become of them, but at the time, Kim claimed that his country stole only thirteen Japanese total, of whom five were still living. Two male Japanese abductees were married to two female abductees. And the remaining woman, Hitomi Soga, was married to an American. His name: Charles Robert Jenkins.

Naturally, the story was a sensation throughout Japan. And naturally the Japanese press focused on the fate of their abducted compatriots, while the Western press gravitated toward covering Jenkins, one of the oddest and most arcane icons of the cold war. Jenkins was one of only a handful of U.S. servicemen believed to have crossed the Demilitarized Zone that split the Korean peninsula in two and to have willingly defected to communist North Korea in the 1960s. For years, the Americans’ fate was the subject of intense speculation, but eventually interest in them cooled. Over the decades that followed, a piece of propaganda featuring one or several of them would occasionally surface, a rumored sighting by a stray diplomat or a North Korean defector to the South would be reported, or a magazine would try to reconstruct one of their biographies by tracking down their publicity-shy families in the States. Were they unrepentant traitors, pampered wards of this odd Stalinist hereditary dictatorship? Or were they prisoners, suffering the same deprivations that almost every other resident of this brutal regime did? No one knew. And by the late 1990s, it seemed as if no one ever would. After nearly four decades, most of the four or five U.S. soldiers that crossed into North Korea were thought to be dead. By 2002, they were all drifting quickly into the realm of cold war legend—until Kim Jong-il himself yanked one of them back into the spotlight.

Within a few weeks of Koizumi’s first trip to Pyongyang, North Korea and Japan had arranged a two-week visit to Japan for the five abductees that, to no one’s surprise, became permanent. Either with or without North Korea’s advance consent, it became clear the moment the abductees set foot in Japan that the Japanese government would never send them back. But giant diplomatic hurdles remained. First, Japan needed to get the eight family members of the five abductees (including Jenkins and his two daughters) left behind in North Korea back to Japan as soon as possible. Second, Japan wanted a full accounting of the eight abductees that North Korea claims are already dead, as well as more information on three additional citizens Japan officially believes North Korea stole. (Although some unofficial estimates have put the number of abductees as high as in the dozens, North Korea has made it clear that it now considers the matter closed and no more information will be forthcoming.) And third, the Japanese wanted to accomplish all this while remaining a key participant in the ongoing Six-Party Talks (which also included North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, and Russia) aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Despite its efforts, the Japanese government has never been able to get other Six-Party countries, even the United States, to include the abductee issue in the nuclear talks to the extent that it would like.

All of this diplomacy took a long time. Indeed, five years later, only the first objective can be considered complete—and how that happened with respect to Jenkins forms a large part of what this book is about. Koizumi did not return to Pyongyang to pick up the abductees’ families until May 2004, twenty months after his first trip. In the interval, of course, the Japanese media and foreign correspondents (myself included) found plenty of other subjects to cover—Koizumi’s dazzling dominance of national politics, the country’s steady economic recovery, and the increasing tensions with a newly ascendant China.

But with Koizumi’s surprise second visit to Pyongyang, Jenkins and the abductees returned to the front pages. After a hectic one-day trip, Koizumi returned with only the five children of the other four abductees. Despite his best efforts, he could not convince Jenkins and his two daughters to board the plane with him. Although Koizumi said he would do his best to ensure that Jenkins and his wife could live together in Japan in peace, he could not guarantee that the soldier would not be prosecuted by the U.S. government for desertion, aiding the enemy, and other military crimes. Throughout the community of people in Tokyo who follow such things, there were (accurate) rumors that the Japanese government was lobbying the United States to pardon Jenkins, while the U.S. government was adamant that no deal could be struck. Jenkins had to face justice.

By early July, the Japanese and North Korean governments arranged a meeting between Soga, Jenkins, and their daughters in Jakarta (chosen because it was, in the opinion of the family, a neutral country where Soga couldn’t be taken back to North Korea and Jenkins couldn’t be apprehended by the U.S. military). While the family was in Jakarta, I met with a senior U.S. embassy official in Tokyo about a different story, but as we were wrapping up, I asked him what he thought was going to happen to Jenkins.

“Well,” he said, “Jenkins is a very sick man. He had an operation in North Korea just before he left, and it has gone very wrong. He needs top-notch medical care as soon as possible. So you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just happened to show up in a hospital around here some time soon.” “And then what?” I asked. “Well, we don’t know just yet. We would allow him to get better, for starters. I don’t think it would be good publicity to send the Marines into a hospital just to throw a sick old sergeant into the brig after forty years. Not that we’d be allowed to anyway, given that it’d be a Japanese hospital on Japanese soil. We will just have to see how this plays out. But the U.S. government is firm that he’s a wanted man who must face trial.”

By the end of that week, true to my embassy source’s prediction, Jenkins and his family got on a plane headed for Tokyo. Landing in the early evening, under full police escort, they drove straight from the airport to the Tokyo Women’s Medical University Hospital in Shinjuku. The interest in the Jenkins-Soga family was now at its highest point yet. But there was no access, no information, and no news. The Japanese government wasn’t talking, nor was Washington, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, or U.S. Army–Japan headquarters. Repeated calls to all of them over several weeks had amounted to nothing. There were armed Tokyo police outside the hospital and, according to Japanese news reports, right outside Jenkins’s hospital room door. The way many of my sources within the U.S. embassy were talking, it was pretty clear that even they didn’t know much about what was going on or how it all was going to end.

Colleagues and I in the foreign press corps consoled ourselves by telling each other that the story was being so well guarded that there was no way to get anywhere close to it. On the strength of such group certainty, I authoritatively assured my bosses in Hong Kong and New York that there was nothing more that could be done. One of them told me that that was fine, if I said so, but also wanted me to know that Norm Pearlstine himself, the editor in chief of all Time Inc. publications, was personally intrigued by the story. I remember throwing up my hands when I received this information, just as I distinctly remember laughing out loud at an email from another editor in New York asking, innocently, about the likelihood of getting an interview. What a rube! How hopelessly naive! Jenkins was locked down tight, and that was that.

Which brings us back to September 2 and my career flashing before my eyes as I clicked around FEER’s website. Just a couple of days earlier, I had blithely assured my boss that while I wasn’t making much progress, no one else was either. There was no way, I declared, Jenkins was talking to anyone. And now here he was.

Maybe this isn’t real, I told myself. Or maybe this isn’t as big a deal as I think it is. A quick Google News search of Jenkins’s name dispelled that notion. Hundreds of hits came pouring back. It didn’t matter if the FEER story was any good. The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse were all picking up the basics—Mysterious U.S. defector to North Korea speaks after forty years!—and spinning it out to news sites across the web. Within an hour or two that morning, it was the top story everywhere.

It was time to face the wrath. I picked up the phone and called my boss in Hong Kong. “Hi, Mike. Uh, have you seen the news today?” I said. “I sure have,” he responded, with an iciness I had never heard from him before. He always expected the best from his correspondents, for us to break big stories like this first and move them forward the furthest, but he was also realistic about how competitive this field is and how skilled our rivals are. You were expected to win far more than you lost, but it was also understood that it is impossible to win them all. So on those occasions when I felt like I had gotten beaten on a story, I could usually expect a pep talk from him, not a chewing out. Today, there would be no pep talk. Indeed, there was very little talk at all. Since after a few moments, it seemed he was too mad, disappointed, or upset to actually speak to me, there wasn’t a whole lot to say. “So, um, yeah, I’m going to find out how this happened,” I said. “I suggest you do,” he responded, just as icily, and hung up.

BOOK: The Reluctant Communist
3.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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