Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
The second time Megumi came into our lives again must have been in 1985 or 1986, since our oldest daughter, Mika, was with us and was about two or three years old at the time. We were shopping at the Rakwon Dollar Store in Pyongyang, and Megumi and a female Korean leader came in. I did not recognize her, of course, but my wife nudged me and said, “That’s her. That’s Megumi.” We were standing in the food section, and Megumi came up and said hello to me and my wife. I introduced myself, and Megumi bent down and started coo-cooing to Mika, whom I had by the hand but was standing and running around and talking a little at that age. Megumi asked me if I spoke Japanese, and I said I did not, so she began speaking in Korean. “Your wife and I are very good friends,” she said. “I know that,” I said. “I have heard a lot of nice things about you,” I responded. At that point, Mika was pulling on me because a box of cookies had caught her eye. I had a little money in my pocket, so I figured I could afford it, and I was looking for a way to excuse myself so that Megumi and Hitomi could talk privately. I knew what a rare and valuable chance this was for them. I don’t know why, but the Korean handler Megumi was with seemed to give her plenty of space, too. So Mika and I went off to buy some cookies, and the two women chatted for no more than ten minutes. After that, as far as I know, we never saw nor heard anything having to do with Megumi until October 15, 2002, the day my wife left North Korea for Tokyo.
Around the second or third week Hitomi and I were together, I started teaching her English. Hitomi knew her ABCs but not much more than that. So we started just with writing, penmanship. But she kept holding the pencil like a calligraphy brush. I would try to correct her form by putting my arm over hers and my writing hand over hers. At first, she was having none of that, flinching at the very touch. But over the next few weeks, as she got more comfortable with me and more comfortable with my instruction, she would let me teach her this way, with my arm and hand moving hers to make the strokes. Not long after that, during a similar lesson, I was teaching her a new word, my hand and arm on hers, my cheek right up close to hers. I turned to look at her, and she turned into me, and we kissed.
I don’t know what it was that drove us together. On the face of it, we had very little in common. I do know that we were very lonely in a world where we both were total outsiders. And it took us a very short time to realize that we both hated North Korea. That gave us a strong common bond. One of the leaders, one of the few I ever liked, summed a lot of it up in a conversation he had with me during those early weeks with Hitomi. He said, “You and she don’t seem like it, but you are actually the same. You both have nothing here. Together, you would each at least have something.” I thought what he said was very true. It wasn’t much longer after that that I started asking her to marry me on an almost daily basis. At first, she always said no.
One of those first few weeks after we became a couple, we went to Pyongyang and to the Pyongyang Shop. Now I had been coming here for years, so when the shopgirls saw me walk in with this young, beautiful woman, they could not believe it. Hitomi told me later that she was embarrassed at first and that early on she found it difficult to be with me. Not because I was old or because of how I looked, but because I was a Western man. She had never seen one before me other than on television or in movies. She didn’t know how to act around me, and she was selfconscious about what other people thought. In time, as we fell in love and she became more comfortable with me than with anyone else, she simply decided that she didn’t care what anyone else thought. That day at the Pyongyang Shop I told her I would buy her anything she wanted. She chose an umbrella, which, considering the rain-soaked day she showed up on my doorstep, was something she needed.
I continued to ask her to marry me, practically every day. But I always did so with total honesty. I told her, “You don’t know where they are going to take you next, or when, or what it is going to be like when you get there. If you marry me, then you know that you are going to be able to stay here, and I think you at least like it here, and you know that you are safe. I know that you do not love me. How could you so soon? And I must honestly admit that I do not love you, though I think that I could. And, from what I have seen, I think that you are capable of loving me someday. But we do not have the time and the luxury to have a normal courtship, because anything can happen here, and they could decide tomorrow to take you away.”
It wasn’t long after that that she said she would marry me. I walked down to the police station. The police station was the only place with a phone, and you had to get permission for every call you made. I rang up the Organization and said, “Come quick, it’s an emergency.” They came rushing and said, “What is it? What is it? Where is she?” They thought at first that she had run away. I said, “Set a date. Hitomi and I are getting married.” They could not believe it. They could not believe that someone like her would agree to marry someone like me. “How did you do it?” they asked. I said it was no big mystery. Number one: I was nice to her and gave her the first of everything. I lit her cigarettes, gave her the best food, made her furniture, and gave her gifts. Number two: I told the cadres to get the hell out of the way so that we could actually get to know each other better. And number three: I told her the truth. I told her that she needed me. I told her that we needed each other, and I assured her that I could protect her.
While it was impossible that we could have developed the deep love that sustains a marriage for decades, there is no doubt that once we decided to get married, we gave in to the emotions of wanting and needing each other. One day, not long before the wedding, we decided to play cards after we had finished dinner. I was out of writing paper, so I ripped the white inside lining out of the pack of Kulak-sae cigarettes I was smoking and told her to make a scorecard out of that. She was hunched over the table, writing on the paper for a minute or two, and then started giggling. “What are you laughing about?” I asked her. “How could there be anything funny about a scorecard?” Still giggling, she got up, turned around, and ran into her bedroom. I unfolded the piece of paper she had left, and it said, in English, “I love you.” I got up and went into her room. “Is this true?” I asked. She nodded. I said, “Okay, if you mean it and this is still true in the morning, give me the note again then.” I left the note on her bed and shut the door behind me. Usually, Hitomi was never able to move around the house without me waking up. It was small, and for her to get anywhere—to get outside to go to the bathroom, for example—she had to go through my room first. For the first time I knew of, however, she was able to successfully sneak into and out of my room, because when I woke up the next morning, there the note was, sitting on my pillow.
Our wedding was August 8, 1980, just thirty-eight days after we first met. There was no real ceremony to speak of. During the day we went into Pyongyang to have our picture taken, and in the evening we had a celebration dinner at home. The food was nothing special, to be honest. Pig’s feet, dumplings, rice, and cabbage. The biggest accomplishment of the day, however, was that with some flour, eggs, and sugar, we managed to improvise a wedding cake. We first took about ten eggs and one and a half cups of sugar, put them in a bowl, and beat them for twenty or thirty minutes until it all began to foam and froth. Then we added one and a half cups of flour, stirring very slowly. We lined a pan with a kind of heavy butcher paper—as usual, we didn’t have enough oil to line the pan with—and poured the mixture into the pan. We didn’t have an oven, so we set the pan in a boiling pot of water so it floated like a boat. Then we covered the pot and let it cook for about forty minutes. We pulled the pan out, let it cool, and cut and pulled the paper away. It was drier than hell, and there was no icing, but that was our wedding cake.
I had saved up about six or seven hundred won, so I was able to buy a nice bottle of cognac for the wedding. I had some extra money during those days because of the racket Dresnok’s old cook and I had worked out. She would sell my honey and chickens at a profit to locals that I was not allowed to associate with, and in return I would give her a cut or buy her stuff at the Pyongyang Shop that she otherwise couldn’t get her hands on. I also kept about twenty-five chickens, mostly for the eggs. But as a chicken gets older, its production decreases, so I would sell the older ones. A regular chicken was worth about twenty won, while a big one could go for thirty or forty won. In those days, I also had about three bee boxes that could produce about a hundred pounds of honey per season in the spring and the summer. I could get about twenty won for a half-liter bottle of honey in the summer and three times that much in the winter. At the time, my regular money from the government was only about twenty won a month, so a few bottles of honey a month and a chicken here and there helped out my money supply considerably.
Our leader, chief of staff, an old cook from when we were all in Hua-chun (who did most of the cooking that night), the political commissioner, the political commissioner’s aide, and their driver all attended our wedding celebration dinner. My wife wore a traditional Korean dress that night, and she looked radiant. My wife wrote the vows in Korean, and I read them. I wish I could say they were all that romantic or as beautiful as the poetry she now sometimes writes in Japanese, but since this was North Korea, most of it had to be so much party bullshit: how we would live as a family for the greater benefit of the nation, the party, the people, and the Great Leader. We also had to sing a song glorifying Kim Il-sung. At the time, we didn’t care it was propaganda. We were just happy to be singing.
We had cheap Korean wine in addition to the cognac. The whole night was filled with toasts, everybody pouring us drinks. Before long everybody was loaded. Hitomi herself was pretty drunk, so I took her into the bedroom to let her get some sleep. The aide said that she needed some coffee, so I got up to go make her coffee. By the time I came back, however, the aide was on the bed with her, his hands on her legs, heading up her dress. I grabbed a heavy metal flashlight and was on him in a flash. My hand was cocked back, ready to lay him out flat, when the driver practically tackled me and stopped me from delivering the punch. There was a lot of commotion and shouting, and the group hustled the aide outside. “Get him the hell out of here,” I yelled. I was so mad that I was liable to kill him. Everybody decided that it was time to go, and the wedding party, such as it was, broke up.
Soon after we were married, my wife bought a bottle of sake from the Pyongyang Shop. It was big, and it was the good stuff, so it was very expensive. It was a treat and a treasure to sip that sake, and my wife and I made that bottle last for months and months. Every day or two we would have a little bit, but we savored it, so we would pour each other just the smallest of sips. I loved the pale, cold taste, and to this day, sake is still my favorite drink. Once the sake was gone, I used that bottle to hold cooking gas, and it sat out on the balcony of our apartment for years afterward. I liked having that bottle around because it was an artifact from the days that our marriage had just begun and was a piece of Japan, the homeland that my wife so desperately longed for, here in our house.
I knew how badly my wife missed Japan, and so it wasn’t long after we were married that I asked her what the Japanese word for “good night” was. Thereafter, every night before we went to bed, I would kiss her three times and tell her, “Oyasumi.” Then she would say back to me, “Good night,” in English. It became a ritual from which we never varied. We always wished each other a pleasant night’s sleep in the other’s native language. We did this so we would never forget who we really were and where we came from. Even though we were in love and thankful to be together, we did this to remind ourselves that this place was not really our home and never would be, and that no matter what happened, she was still Japanese, and I was still American.
It wasn’t a month or two after we were married that Hitomi was pregnant. I can’t remember the last time I was so happy, certainly no time in North Korea. With a couple more months of getting to know one another, we had learned to trust one another completely and rely on each other absolutely, and with the added excitement of having a child together, we were now truly falling in love with each other.
Things were going so well that of course I was not happy when I was told that I was being moved away from my beautiful, newly pregnant wife for a few weeks to a few months for a new assignment. And what was the assignment? I was being ordered to act in a movie. I remember one time I was watching TV in 1978. All TV in North Korea is propaganda—the worst stuff you have ever seen, but still, it is there, so you watch. It was a movie about the North Korean war (all movies in North Korea are about war, and North Korea always wins), and who popped up on the screen? Parrish, playing the part of a British army officer! I couldn’t believe it. It was an early installment of a multipart movie called Nameless Heroes that eventually stretched to twenty installments. Well, 1980 had rolled around, and the Organization needed me to play a new part in Nameless Heroes: the evil Dr. Kelton, a U.S. warmonger and capitalist based in South Korea whose goal in life was to keep the war going to benefit American arms manufacturers. They shaved my head on top, since my character was supposed to be balding, and I wore heavily caked makeup. I can still remember my first line. I was talking to Claus, the Seoul CIA station chief (played by an Italian vice dean of the music college in Pyongyang), and I yelled: “You coward! You didn’t keep the secrets! I will personally telephone the representative of the Federal States, Carl Vinson.” (I knew who Carl Vinson was, but what the hell the “Federal States” were, I had no idea. Still, that was the line, so I said it.)
The North Korean movie industry is a joke, of course. The studio, called the Korean Feature Film Studio, was near Manyongdae, by one of my old houses (and Kim Il-sung’s ancestral homeland) and about one hour from my current home. Just the fact that they would need us four Americans to act should tell you something about how sorry a state their movie industry was in. Abshier played a CIA agent in Seoul working under Claus. Dresnok was a major in the U.S. Army who owned an aluminum mine in America and thus had a business interest in continuing the war as well. The costumes were often totally ridiculous (the foreign military uniforms, for example, never looked authentic), and they didn’t have a lot of sets or props.