Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
We found out where Abshier and Parrish lived faster than anybody counted on. One day, only about a month after we all split up, Dresnok’s cook and mine were out shopping in another town a few kilometers away when they noticed two houses that looked exactly like theirs. They went up to the doors, knocked, and started talking to Abshier’s and Parrish’s cooks. It didn’t take them more than two minutes to put it all together. Later that afternoon, Abshier and Parrish paid us a surprise visit. It had only been a few weeks, so there wasn’t much to catch up on. The biggest news was that they both seemed to get along with their cooks, while Dresnok and I were having a hell of a time with ours. That night, we went to check out their houses. (That’s what we said, anyway—we really wanted to see how good-looking their cooks were.)
Dresnok turned stoolie on all of us that night and ratted out the fact that we had made contact. He said he got scared that someone would see his shoe tracks in the mud, and since nobody in the whole country had feet as big as he did, they would know instantly he had been somewhere he shouldn’t. So he went straight to our leader and confessed. The next day, the Tall Cadre came and bawled us out something fierce. He must have yelled for an hour straight, made us do extra self-criticisms, increased our studies, and didn’t let us leave the house. While we pushed the rules as far as we could as often as we could, this infraction really mattered to the Tall Cadre. At one point, he slammed his fist down on a desk and cracked the five-millimeter-thick desktop glass.
I didn’t see Parrish and Abshier for another seven years. Dresnok turning in our visit to Parrish and Abshier was just one of an increasing number of incidents that revealed him as more than ready to become a stooge for the cadres. And September 9, 1972, was a turning point in that regard, a day when he went over the line in betraying me to elevate himself in the eyes of the Organization. Because of what he did that day, and what he continued to do for the next seven years, our relationship probably took twenty years to recover. September 9 was a holiday, the anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party. So, as on every holiday, we were responsible for entertaining whatever cadres would come over. Once we moved to Li Suk, Dresnok and I would alternate holidays. First he would take one; then I would take one. So, on this holiday, the Tall Cadre was coming over for lunch at Dresnok’s. On this day, we were sitting there, just me, him, and Dresnok, in Dresnok’s living room, talking about nothing much at all. Another cadre and the driver were waiting outside, and Dresnok’s cook was milling about the kitchen, doing her thing.
The topic moved toward sex, and the Tall Cadre started raising hell with me. He said that it had come to his attention that my cook and I were having almost no sex at all. Never mind how he might know this—there are any number of ways—but, more important, this is another example of the control and interest that the Organization can exert over the most personal and private moments of your life. When you are outside the situation, it seems like the most bizarre thing imaginable, but when you are there in the moment, you don’t give it a second thought. Even though a cadre is talking about your sex life, it is as if he is talking about something as mundane and customary to discuss as rations or trips into Pyongyang. Anyway, he said that our virtual celibacy was unacceptable (though he didn’t say why) and that he was laying down the law. I had to have sex with my cook at least twice a month, he said, or there would be hell to pay. I told him that it wasn’t any of his business what I did or didn’t do with Lee. But he persisted and persisted, saying he wouldn’t let the subject drop until I agreed, which I wouldn’t do.
Finally, I just told him to go to hell and to stay out of it. Well, that did it. He practically started to shake, he was so furious. He called the driver over and told him to go to the car and get some rope. He tied my hands behind my back and told Dresnok to beat me for my insolence. I still cannot believe it today, but I’ll be damned if Dresnok didn’t step right up and do as he was told. He did not even hesitate. And I will never forget the look in his eye. The sick bastard enjoyed it. He took solid, square-knuckled cracks at me across my face, one after another. He must have landed thirty or forty punches in a row, every time looking at the Tall Cadre to see if he should continue. My nose began to gush blood after the first few swings. By the time he had finished, my top lip had split in two places and my bottom teeth were sticking out of the skin between my lower lip and my chin. I still have the scars all around my mouth. I had to struggle to lift my head, but I managed to clear my nose of blood onto the low table we had been sitting at and get up groggily. My only thought was to head out the door to get back to my own home to try to clean myself up and figure out how badly I was hurt. I don’t even remember how I got untied. They must have untied me. As I was leaving, I heard the Tall Cadre tell Dresnok’s cook to run to my house to tell my cook to hide all the sharp objects, since he was afraid I might come back and kill Dresnok. He hadn’t realized that I hadn’t left yet. I stumbled back and said to him that he shouldn’t worry about me killing Dresnok; he should worry about me killing the person who gave him the order and that he couldn’t possibly hide all of the things I was capable of killing him with.
That was the first of approximately thirty similar beatings I received over the next seven years at the hands of Dresnok. For whatever infraction I committed, the Tall Cadre would tell Dresnok to beat me, and Dresnok was only too happy to comply. Why was he always an eager torturer? He had become a stooge. From the very beginning, the North Koreans tried to keep us Americans from becoming too close and always looked for ways to divide us. They encouraged us to tell on each other if one of us broke the rules, promising us rewards or preferential treatment. In exchange, we would get lighter work details, better rations, or an extra trip into town. Of all of us, Dresnok was always the one most willing take advantage of this strategy. Now that we were split up into twosomes, he had clearly decided even more strongly that his best path of self-preservation was to look for ways to elevate himself above me in the Organization’s eyes rather than ally with me in a more desperate fight of Us versus Them. And he clearly didn’t mind that allying himself with the Organization meant beating me on a regular basis. Decades later, Dresnok stopped being such a stooge, and I managed to put much of my resentment of him past us and forgive him. In the final few years, we even became somewhat close. But for several years, I was surrounded by enemies. The cadres, the cooks, and now even Dresnok.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it was during that time that I began to feel incredible surges of hate that I had never felt before in my life. I would fantasize about driving a knife into someone’s heart, anyone’s heart, just to see what it would feel like. I would dream of having a gun, especially an automatic, because I had no doubt that if I only had the chance, I could kill tens, if not hundreds, of people. The hate would come in waves and press down on me, like the worst headache I’d ever had or as if someone was sitting on my chest. That’s what it was most like, a weight bearing down on me, making me feel like I was being crushed. Sometimes—often, actually—the hate turned inward. The guilt I felt, my inability to try to right the wrongs that I had done, and the living hell that I had landed in—all of it was tearing me up. “How did I get myself into this mess?” I would wonder. “How is it possible I cannot get myself out?” One day around this time, I had had a particularly nasty fight with my cook—about what, I honestly cannot remember. But I had a headache and went to the cabinet where we kept the aspirin. Our doctor at the time was a military doctor, so he prescribed us stuff in bulk, like the amounts that entire army companies would be given. So I opened the cabinet and saw a giant jar of aspirin, perhaps one hundred fifty tablets. Without even thinking about it, I downed them all in enormous handfuls. It didn’t take long before my vision started to go all swimmy, and I went to my bedroom to lie down. My only mistake as I tried to kill myself was that I did not take the empty aspirin bottle with me to bed. My cook found the bottle and called the doctor. The next thing I remember is coming around about seven hours later with a doctor hovering over me.
Ultimately, the cook and I made a truce. We simply agreed that we hated each other and were never going to get along, but that we had to live together, so we needed to tolerate each other as best we could. After that, and thanks to the money we were making together, we actually got along okay, and Lee ultimately lasted seven years in my home. They finally shipped her out unexpectedly one Sunday afternoon. No warning, nothing. She wanted to take her honeybees, but they wouldn’t let her. I don’t even know where she went. I asked the leader the next day if he thought she was ever coming back. He said, “No.” And that was that. Looking back at it, I did learn some things from her. She was good at gaming the system. She was good at getting away with stuff and bending whatever advantages she could her direction. She was the one who told me, “Tell the leaders, ‘Yes, yes, yes, whatever you say,’ to their face, and then when they are gone, do as you please.” That was some of the best advice I ever got. After she left, I inherited her bee boxes, so I started a slightly different racket with Dresnok’s cook. She would sell my honey at markets I couldn’t go to without arousing suspicion, and in return I gave her a cut.
Out of the blue, one of our leaders told us that starting May 1, 1973, we were all going to be teaching English at a military school called Am Ran Gong on the eastern outskirts of Pyongyang. Apparently, Kim Il-sung had recently visited the school and had noticed that the foreign-language departments had no actual foreigners teaching their native languages, so he declared: “I will find you foreign instructors.” So here the cadres were, and with a wave of their hands, a bunch of dropouts were now college instructors. Dresnok and I could really only shake our heads. If we were the best they could do, you know North Korea was pretty hard up for teaching expertise. Our pay got bumped up from ten to twenty won a month.
We all went in rotation. Dresnok and I would go for ten to fifteen days at a time. After we were safely home, they would bring Parrish and Abshier in for a ten-to-fifteen-day stint. The school at that time was a two-year military academy. All of the students were the sons of people high up in the government, and the subjects they studied were primarily foreign languages and military science. At the end of two years, the cadets graduated as lieutenants in the army. We each taught three ninety-minute classes a day. There were about thirty students in each class. There was always one student monitor, who turned on the tape recorder as soon as I began the lesson. The first ten minutes would involve discussing the day’s “news” that students had heard over the school loudspeaker that morning. The next twenty minutes would involve going over their homework from the night before. The final hour would be a mix of reading, pronunciation, listening skills, and conversation. Typically, I would have them read from their textbook for fifteen minutes or so. The text usually involved the teachings of Kim Il-sung or the stories of the guerrilla fighters who took on Japanese soldiers during World War II. Then I would ask questions about what they had read, and we would discuss their answers. After classes, afternoons usually involved preparing future lesson plans. All lesson plans had to be approved by the department head, and the only sure criterion I could determine for lesson plans that got approved instantly versus those that got sent back for revision was this: The more often your lesson plan mentions Kim Il-sung, the more likely it is to be approved.
I hated teaching and hated the people running the school. I can’t say if I hated my students, since I was never allowed to interact with them outside of class, but I am pretty sure they hated me. With all of the anti-American propaganda they had taken in, some of them would just scowl at me during class, in the hallways, wherever. The administrators tried to keep our interaction with anyone to a bare minimum. When we weren’t teaching, Dresnok and I were banished to our dormitory room, which had two beds, two desks, and little else. We took our meals in the officers’ mess, but no one spoke to us, and we didn’t speak to anyone who wasn’t in the English faculty, which had about fourteen teachers besides us. At that school, they taught Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and English. And despite Kim Il-sung’s promise to find foreign instructors, we were the only foreign teachers we knew of teaching there besides one Russian woman whom I only laid eyes on once and did not speak to. Wherever some of the Japanese abductees were teaching, I don’t think it was here, at least during the years I was there. Obviously, it would be hard to tell a Chinese from a Japanese from a Korean just by looking at him, but one of the other members of the English faculty told me that all of the other languages’ teachers were North Koreans who had spent time in the countries of the languages they now taught. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what he told me.
Every time I taught, I felt bad that I was helping members of an army that was still the enemy of the United States. But I had long ago learned that large resistances in North Korea were not possible. I could not simply refuse to teach, for example. During those days, if I refused, I knew I would be beaten until I complied (by Dresnok, most likely) or sent to a work camp in the north where death was virtually certain. Small resistances, however? Those were possible. Not that I am an expert in English in the first place, but I purposely took a “Who cares?” attitude to the whole thing. If my students were wrong, sometimes I corrected them, and sometimes I didn’t. Occasionally, I would purposely tell them the wrong answer just to see if they would notice. They never did. Very often, a student would say something, and I would have absolutely no idea what the hell he was saying. The last thing I wanted to do was sit there and unravel his gibberish, so I would just say, “Yes, that’s right. Very good.”
The summer of my first year of teaching, as the weather got warmer, I began to wear short-sleeved shirts to class. This revealed the old tattoo on my left forearm that I got in Killeen, Texas, of two crossed rifles above the words “US Army.” Though nobody had noticed the tattoo before, or apparently cared about it if they had, over the previous eight years I had been in North Korea, now that I was in front of young, impressionable cadets, this glorification of Yankee imperialism was completely unacceptable. I didn’t know about that, though, until the day they cut it off. One day I was in my room and was called to the school’s clinic. When I arrived, a doctor, four or five cadets, and Dresnok were standing there. The doctor looked at my tattoo and squeezed and prodded the skin. He said, “This has got to go. The English faculty said so.”