Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
In addition, they didn’t bring any common sense to planning the filming. For example, they would often film the scenes in the order that they appeared in the script rather than in the order that made shooting most efficient. If, say, there was a scene at Claus’s office, then a scene at my office, and then a third scene at Claus’s office, they would film it in that order, breaking down Claus’s office set and rebuilding it after filming my scene rather than just filming both of Claus’s scenes in a row and then filming mine. I knew nothing about how movies were made, but I knew that filming in sequence was not how real filmmakers did it. I actually think that even the North Koreans couldn’t have been that stupid. I suspect part of the reason they filmed it that way was because they were often writing the story as they went, all the way up to the day of shooting. There was also such a shortage of foreigners to play the foreign parts that they would draft not just us Americans but also the families of diplomats and whatever foreign businessmen they could find. Throughout the years, all the way up until 2000, I would occasionally be called to the movie studio to play a role in this movie or that. I acted in probably dozens of them. But because they had no money to actually finish most of these movies, I acted in far more of them than ever got made.
In at least two ways, their idea to have us Americans act in the movies backfired. First, the movie sets introduced us to a lot of high-class foreigners from diplomatic circles whom we befriended and who years later would help us get our hands on a lot of black market things like books and movies. And perhaps worse, the movies made me something of a star, or at least a recognizable face, to a lot of North Koreans. After that first movie, sometimes I would be walking down the street and someone would yell, all excited and happy, “Kelton Bac-Sa [Dr. Kelton]! Kelton Bac-Sa!” Regular North Koreans would sometimes ask me for my autograph. For Parrish, it was even more extreme. His character, Lt. Louis London, wound up turning against the British and joining the North Korean cause, so average North Koreans would not just approach him but would treat him like he was a genuine communist hero.
Off and on for the next several months, I was acting in a movie, but I was home on a break during one of the most traumatic experiences of my life and my wife’s. When Hitomi was about seven months pregnant, she went shopping and to a doctor’s appointment at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital. The appointment went fine, but on the way back, the road was so bumpy and rutted that she started to bleed. I telephoned the driver to pick her up again, and the next day they took her back to the hospital. They kept her overnight, checked her out, and said she was fine. She got back in the car for the trip back—and the exact same thing happened. She started bleeding, so I called the local doctor. He came by and said he didn’t know what to do. So we called the car again the next morning to take her back to the hospital for the third time in four days.
This time, she wasn’t fine, and she went into labor that night, two months early. She delivered a son in the very early hours of Sunday, May 10, 1981. A car came unannounced Sunday afternoon to tell me that she had given birth and to get in, because they were taking me to the hospital. When I got there, I went straight to the maternity ward. Our little boy was being held in an incubator. He looked so small and weak. I had never seen such a small human being. He wasn’t much over a couple of pounds and not longer than ten inches. I asked the doctors if they thought he would live. They told me if he makes it three days, then he will live, but that it was too early to tell. I had a sense right then that he wasn’t going to make it. They asked me not to tell my wife how dire things were, but I knew my wife knew, since she was both a nurse and the mother, and I figured mothers can tell these types of things instinctively.
I went up to my wife’s hospital room and told her that her part was over, that she had given birth, and that all there was left to do now was wait. That’s when I told her what I had told her many times before during her pregnancy, that she should name our first child. She said that she had decided to name the boy Masahi.
Since spouses are not allowed to stay in hospitals in North Korea, I went home that night. In the morning, a car came to pick up me and Anocha, Abshier’s wife, to shop for rations. I thought this was odd, since usually ration day came every two weeks, either on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. But we got ready, and off we went. In Pyongyang, Anocha got out of the car and went into the Pyongyang Shop. That’s when the leader told me to hang back, that he had to tell me something. He let me know that the baby had died late the night before, less than twenty-four hours after he was born. I was sad and sorry to have my son die before he’d even had a chance to live, but to be honest, I was more sad and worried for my wife. I went into the Pyongyang Shop and bought her some dried squid, which was one of her favorite foods.
I then went to the hospital, to the hospital chief of staff ’s office. The chief of staff wanted to know what to do with the baby. He said the hospital wanted to take care of the body “in the government way,” telling me that a baby that was not yet a year old was not yet part of the family. This is the kind of thing that the North Korean government was always doing, reaching into parts of your life in ways that seem perverse and twisted in retrospect. The hospital people never said how, exactly, they would lay the body to rest, and a part of me does not want to know, even to this day. I told them that this was fine, they could do as they saw fit. They also told me not to tell my wife yet that our son was dead, which I agreed not to do. At that moment my wife, who had heard that I was here, came into the office and sat down. There were four or five other people in the room, so I could not have the conversation I wanted to have with her.
That night, I decided to find Parrish and Dresnok and tell them what had happened to my baby. I don’t know why. I just wanted them to know. It thought it was important. I also knew that Siham was pregnant at the same time and was expecting soon, and for some reason, I thought it was important that she know what had happened to Hitomi. While we all had seen each other again occasionally over the past year or so, I hadn’t seen the others’ houses since 1972 when we had gotten in trouble for visiting each other after we first got separated into pairs. I went to the train station nearest them and asked the station master where the two Americans lived. He wouldn’t tell me and took me to the police station. The cop on duty wouldn’t tell me either, and when he heard why I wanted to see them, he said, “What does it matter to them, your baby dying? Why do they need to know?”
So I left the police station and decided to find them on my own. I walked to where I thought I remembered they were, across the railroad tracks through a farm, and I hit a dirt road that I recognized. Dresnok’s house still had its lights on. I went in and told Dresnok. He went to get Parrish. Parrish came over to hear the news. Dresnok and I talked until dawn. It was not because we were connecting on a particularly deep level, to be honest. I was more waiting for the early morning light so I could find my way home. When the sun started coming up, I set out. It took an hour and a half to walk back to my home. As I look back on it, I think that trip to the other Americans’ houses was my own odd way of mourning. All alone, I didn’t know how else to express my grief.
They kept my wife in the hospital for about ten days. Although our son died on the tenth, they did not tell her until the sixteenth. I think they told her on the sixteenth because they knew that the seventeenth was her birthday. On the eleventh, since I did not know when I would be allowed to return to the hospital, I gave the doctor a brooch to give to my wife for her birthday, which I said was the seventeenth.
Hitomi wrote me a letter after they told her the baby was dead. She told me she was sorry and that she looked at the baby’s death as her fault in some way. She said she was sad that she couldn’t buy the baby new clothes. I broke down crying when I read that letter, and I cry even now when I think about it. They didn’t bring Hitomi back to me until the nineteenth. We were devastated for months afterward, and, in some ways, I don’t think you ever quite get over something like that. I am so thankful, though, that we were able to go on and have Mika and Brinda.
Because of my life with Hitomi and the two daughters we have raised together, I never know quite how to respond to the question that a lot of people ask me: “Knowing what you know now, would you ever cross over to North Korea again?” Everybody who asks me the question wants and expects my answer to be an immediate “No. I would never.” But if I did not do what I did, I would not have my wife and my girls, the three most important people in my life. So I always have to disappoint the people asking by saying that I made a mistake and much of the time was horrible, but I can’t say that I would be willing to take it all back.
6 | Friends and Strangers
In mid-1981, we all had to go back to teaching at the school where we had taught before. We were still English instructors, but the school had changed. Newly reopened after shutting down hastily in the wake of the Panmunjom incident in 1976, it had become a four-year military college and its name had changed to Mi Dang-hi University. Cadets still graduated as lieutenants, but the school had been enlarged to enroll one thousand to fifteen hundred students and the curriculum expanded to include more subjects. It was now named after an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter who was captured by the Japanese during World War II. The legendary story that made him a hero went like this: While a prisoner, he realized that he talked in his sleep and that he was inadvertently giving away secrets about the revolutionary movement. His solution: He bit off his own tongue. Every North Korean knows this story.
In addition to our teaching, the school’s administrators would frequently give us side work that would often keep us up until almost dawn. Even though the four of us now went for our teaching stints individually instead of in pairs, Dresnok and I had to collaborate on a military dictionary with more than forty thousand words in it, passing off the work to the other as we each left or returned. All the administrators who saw the English typewriter we were using that was part of the college’s office equipment would say proudly, “That came from the U.S.S. Pueblo.” We had worked on this dictionary during our first years of teaching in the 1970s, and the school still wasn’t finished with it. Another time, we wrote an interrogation handbook. It was times like this when I most felt bad about the harm that I could be doing to the United States by helping an enemy country. But on the other hand, I don’t know how much harm I was really doing. Mostly we just translated questions into English: “What is your name? What is your unit?” Other than that, we offered very little in the way of sophisticated interrogation advice or techniques, primarily because we didn’t know any to begin with. Here is the sort of stuff we would come up with: “If you capture a foreign soldier and there are no translators available, do not beat him up, thinking that that will magically get him to speak Korean. Ask him to write things down, and maybe you will be able to translate whatever information he offers later.”
One task that never made me feel like a traitor, though, was translating the soundtracks of Hollywood movies. We had a tape deck that had slow-motion forward and rewind, and we had to capture every word. I assume someone would create subtitles from the Korean scripts we would write. This was not as enjoyable an exercise as it might sound, however. There were no visuals—it was just the sound tape—and they would chop up the tapes into pieces, giving us a few minutes at a time, so we really were just translating strings of words rather than anything that made sense, not enjoying a story. It was hard even to recognize what you were translating. Kramer vs. Kramer was one movie I know I did. But with a lot of them, I didn’t even catch their titles. There was a movie about the first atomic bomb drop, and another one on an island with a scientist who was growing giant oysters. I did translate a lot of Walt Disney movies, though. Those were easy to recognize. I worked on Mary Poppins. I need to see that movie now that I am out and in Japan, because to this day, I cannot tell you what was going on from the parts I was translating. People flying up chimneys? It seemed like some crazy stuff to me, and I could not make any sense of it.
We all taught there for four more years. We hated it there. Everybody was watching us, criticizing us, writing reports on us that would get us hauled before the administrators for dressingdowns and special self-criticism sessions. But none of us gave a shit about being good teachers, so the more we got in trouble, the more we enjoyed secretly sabotaging our classes. We just wouldn’t correct the students’ mistakes, or we’d purposely teach them nonsense words. So it was a pretty bad combination for everybody. In 1985, we were all finally fired for good when the school at last caught on to the fact that our teaching was actually hurting the students’ English more than it was helping.
In 1981, the Organization decided that keeping all of us Americans and our families in different locations was a waste of leaders and other resources, so they decided to consolidate us in a new apartment building. Cadets from the university built it. It was a four-unit apartment building in Li Suk, right next to my old house, which they left standing. (Later, I kept my pig in my old house for a while.) After many construction delays, we finally moved in in late November 1984. For the first time ever, we all were living together with our wives and families in one place. Parrish’s and Dresnok’s families had the two units downstairs, and Anocha’s and my family had the two units upstairs. By Korean standards, these were okay apartments. The front door of each unit opened onto a large hallway, off of which there were two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room. This was our house for the next eighteen years straight, until Kim Jong-il revealed in 2002 that Hitomi was one of the living abductees, and our world turned on its head.