Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
The author of the article was named Jeremy Kirk. At least by byline, I knew just about everyone who covered Japan for a major Western publication, but I had never heard of Jeremy Kirk before. Turning back to Google, I entered his name and hit “Return.” From the hits, it was clear he worked for the Stars and Stripes in Seoul. Reading his stories, it took only a couple of minutes to figure out that he spent a lot of time on the courts-martial beat, and many of his stories quoted defense counsel Capt. James D. Culp who—dammit, dammit, dammit—had been assigned as Jenkins’s lawyer only a couple of weeks ago. So obvious. Culp was the way to get to Jenkins.
Actually, it had always been obvious that Jenkins’s defense lawyer would, at this stage, have better access to the man than anyone else. But knowing what I knew about military lawyers, both on the defense and the prosecution side, it never occurred to me that one might make his client available for an interview. While civilian lawyers were generally well-versed in the benefits and pitfalls of engaging the press, military lawyers still seemed more beholden to the military culture of press silence. A military lawyer who wanted press exposure for his client was a concept so alien, I never considered it for longer than it took me to dismiss it. Clearly, I had misjudged this military defense lawyer.
“Michiko!” I called out to the office next door, where sat one of the three Japanese reporters Time employed along with me in the bureau. “Yes?” she said, as she popped her head around the door. “Can you find out where Jenkins’s lawyer, a guy by the name of Capt. Jim Culp, is staying? Call every hotel if you need to, but he’s staying somewhere in Tokyo. It’s important.” Less than three minutes later, she returned, saying she had found him. “How did you do that so quickly? Where is he?” I asked. She said that anyone in the U.S. Army staying in Tokyo was almost certainly at the New Sanno, so she called the front desk, asked for his room, and hung up after they put the call through. Again, so obvious. Of course he was at the New Sanno, a luxury hotel in the heart of Tokyo that is owned and operated by the U.S. military and restricted for its exclusive use.
I sat down and banged out a rather desperate letter to Culp saying I had read the FEER article with intense interest but that Time would be a far better venue if he really wanted to get Jenkins’s story out there. I carried it over to the Sanno’s front desk that afternoon.
A few days later, I got a phone call. “This is Capt. Jim Culp,” the voice said. “I got your letter. We should talk. Come to the New Sanno at 7:00 p.m. tonight.” I arrived at 7:00 sharp, and he was waiting for me outside. As I approached, I called his mobile phone to confirm that I had the right person. He was a big guy. About my height, 6'4", but thicker through the shoulders and chest. Balding, probably mid-thirties. Scowling. Definitely playing the hard guy. He was not going to make this particularly easy. We exchanged greetings, walked into the lobby, and, as discreetly as he could in such a public place, he turned me around and patted me down here and there, across the back and across the chest, under the arms, on the pants pockets, he said, to make sure that I wasn’t wearing a wire. “This whole conversation is off the record, you understand?” I said I did. “In fact, until further notice, I will deny that this conversation ever took place, you understand?” Again, I said I did. “OK,” he said. “Let’s get some chow.” (I have gotten his permission to recount our conversation here.) Rather than heading outside and into Tokyo like I expected, he turned around and headed for the Embarcadero, the New Sanno’s sports bar.
The Embarcadero, I am almost ashamed to admit, is one of my favorite places in Tokyo. While I love almost everything about Tokyo, homesickness is an occasional hazard of the job. And while there are tons of American-style bars all over Tokyo, they all seem to have admittedly small yet significant lapses in authenticity (such as ketchup that is too sweet, club sandwiches that come with chopped egg in them, or Budweiser signs but no actual Budweiser). The Embarcadero, however, is authenticity itself. Great burgers, absolutely mammoth martinis, American beers on tap, nonstop American sports on TV—and you can pay for the dirt-cheap bill in dollars. Since even Americans need a military host to get them in, however, I would, over the years, routinely ask my military sources to take me here. But now, being here with Culp, I felt a little strange.
“What are we doing here?” I asked as we sat down in a back booth. “Considering you just patted me down for a wire, it seems like you’re worried about being watched or listened to, so why are we staying in the middle of a military hotel?”
“No,” he responded. “I was worried that you would tape our conversation or write a story about it, and that would be bad for my guy. I take it as a given that everything I do and everything I say is being watched by the CIA and military intelligence. Wouldn’t you? God, for the good of the country, I kind of hope that they are. I mean, if you were in the CIA, don’t you think I would be a can’t-miss surveillance target? The lawyer of an accused defector to North Korea who they think might be a communist spy? Um, duh. I assume everything I do is being watched, so all I have to do is make sure I don’t do anything illegal or unethical. And the only reason I am here and talking to you is because I think it may be in the best interest of my guy, which is my first priority and legal duty. So start talking: Why do you want to meet him?”
Despite our mutual wariness, we got on well pretty quickly. At that dinner, we laid the groundwork for what was going to become a fruitful relationship. The hard guy act quickly melted away. Culp mentioned he had been an infantry sergeant himself years ago before he put himself through college and law school, so he could understand and identify with what his enlisted clients were going through in a way that a lot of his current peers couldn’t. (That was part of the reason, I assumed, that Culp always referred to the man he represented not as the somewhat distant “my client” but as the much more intimate “my guy.”) He obviously had a lot of sympathy for Jenkins. In his assessment, Charlie, as Culp called him, was a poor, dumb, unlucky soul who had done an incredibly rash, stupid, and bad thing but who had already paid beyond measure for his crime. He described him as a frail and broken man, one who had no communist sympathies whatsoever, who had suffered constant mental torture while in North Korea, and who would be lucky if he could just live out his last few years on the planet in peace and freedom.
These would all be opinions I would more or less come to agree with after getting to know Jenkins, but at the time, every word was new territory for me. It was quickly becoming clear that the FEER article had barely touched what was a rich and varied tale. Jenkins was still a cipher, a total unknown. Besides the other American deserters in North Korea, Culp was the only Westerner who had spent any significant time with Jenkins in the last forty years. So every word Culp spoke was a revelation.
The situation was so politically sensitive it was essential that no one make a misstep, Culp explained. The Japanese government would love the United States to just pardon Jenkins, he said, “but that ain’t gonna happen.” The United States had never wavered from its insistence that justice must be served. “Charlie’s situation is precarious,” Culp continued. “So far, Charlie has benefited from the goodwill extended to him by the Japanese people. Since his wife is a national hero, they are inclined to think the best of her husband, at least in the absence of any further info. And the United States had, at least initially, sent signals that Charlie could recuperate in the hospital unmolested.”
“But that was, what, six or seven weeks ago?” Culp said. “I could see the tide was beginning to change. The Japanese press was beginning to ask, ‘How long is this guy going to hang out in the hospital at taxpayers’ expense?’ And I could feel that the prosecution and the rest of the U.S. government were getting more and more impatient. I told Charlie a little while ago, ‘I can feel it. Something is happening. They are coming for you soon, if we don’t make the next move first.’ And I knew I needed to take the initiative on the PR front.”
“But why FEER?” I asked. “It is such a small magazine compared to Time, the New York Times, or any of the other publications that would have killed for that interview.” “For this story,” Culp said, “it didn’t matter how big the publication was. FEER was perfect for my purposes. Our audience was not the whole world. That day will come. But this time around, the audience was actually just a few people in the U.S. and Japanese governments, to tell them to back off, to give us just a little more time and my guy will voluntarily turn himself in very soon. I picked Jeremy because, frankly, I don’t know a lot of journalists, and once I decided I needed to do this, I needed it done quickly and I knew I could control what he wrote. I snuck him in and out of the hospital; they talked for maybe an hour. He had connections at FEER, so FEER it was. The story was a way of delivering a message to people I can’t talk to directly, to tell them that there is no need to make Charlie’s coming under custody ugly if they can wait just a little while longer. And I can feel that the pressure on him has lessened because of it. So on every front, the story was a home run, a huge, huge win for us. But next time when Charlie talks, and there will be a next time, he will want a more global audience, and maybe then it will be for Time.” When Culp said that, toward the end of our dinner, I knew the next big Jenkins story just might be mine. (And when Culp and Kirk had a falling out several weeks later, that cemented it.) We finished the night with two double Crown Royals (Culp’s favorite whiskey) and a promise to keep the conversation going.
Charles Robert Jenkins is, quite simply, a figure of lasting historical importance. He has lived a life that’s unique in twentiethcentury history. No other Westerner has survived so long in the world’s least known, least visited, and least understood country on the planet and been able to return to tell the tale. And what he has to say is vitally important: Is there any country in the world harder to get a handle on than North Korea? And while there are certainly rivals when it comes to the intensity of American diplomatic bungling, has any country been a U.S. foreign relations debacle so consistently for so many years? While native North Korean defectors and escapees from its gulags have made some horrors of that nation known to the world, Jenkins is the first Westerner able to provide a long-term, detailed view of this secretive and brutal society from the perspective of an outsider who became intimately familiar with its inner workings. I do not profess to know much about North Korea, but I’m confident Charles Robert Jenkins knows more about it than just about any foreigner on the planet.
Perhaps this does not sound like as great a feat as it is. Very few people know much at all about North Korea, even the people who most prominently hold themselves out as experts. If from within, the nation is a prison nearly impossible to escape from, from without, it is a vault of information nearly impossible to crack into. Very few Western countries have diplomatic presences in Pyongyang. Entry for Western journalists is severely limited (I have never been), and once there, writers (like all visitors and virtually all residents) are accompanied or watched wherever they go. For this reason, because so little new information about North Korea ever leaks out, many of the stories that make their way into print are recycled over and over again for years. Throughout the 1990s, for example, it was an oft-printed truism that the U.S. government suspected North Korea possessed one or two nuclear weapons. The “one or two” total had been bandied about so long, journalists didn’t even bother to source it. It was simply accepted as fact. In his book North Korea: Another Country, Bruce Cumings tracks the ultimate source of the story down to a 1993 National Intelligence Estimate. It was arrived at, he writes, “by gathering all the government experts on North Korea together and asking for a show of hands as to how many thought the North has made atomic bombs. A bit over half raised their hands.”
So what about North Korea is known? To begin with, it’s abundantly clear that the current, unhappy state of the Korean peninsula was born in the waning days of World War II. As victory over Japan became imminent, U.S. military planners were already looking to contain what they perceived as the next likely threat: the Soviet Union. Working to construct a power-sharing agreement for the soon-to-be liberated Korea, or so the story goes, a young colonel by the name of Dean Rusk (who would later be secretary of state under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) arbitrarily chose the 38th parallel as the dividing point between the Soviet-controlled North and the U.S.-controlled South for no reason other than it bisected the landmass into two roughly equal halves.
Unable to settle on a common form of government, the Soviets and Americans installed regimes of their own choosing. The Soviets selected a young, former anti-Japanese revolutionary named Kim Il-sung, while the staunchly anticommunist Syngman Rhee took over in Seoul. After American and Soviet troops withdrew from the peninsula in 1949, each Korean leader aimed to unify the country under his government. Peaceful unification plans broke down. Tensions increased. After a swift military buildup and the blessing of Stalin, Kim invaded the South on June 25, 1950, to quick and devastating effect, almost conquering the entire peninsula in days. To Kim’s surprise, however, the United States rose to action immediately. It rallied the United Nations, and by October, UN forces had recaptured all of South Korea, taken Pyongyang, and were headed for the Yalu River, the border between China and Korea. The push greatly alarmed Mao, and he ordered 270,000 “volunteers” into battle to push back the U.S.-led UN forces across the 38th parallel and back into southern territory. Inconclusive battles and lengthy peace negotiations continued for two more years until a ceasefire was declared on July 27, 1953. More than three million people were dead, and the borders fell almost exactly where they stood before the fighting started.
With the balance of power thus definitively laid down, Kim Ilsung went on to create one of the most idiosyncratic regimes in modern history. The cornerstone of his communist dictatorship was the concept of Juche, or self-reliance, in all things, from economics and politics to international relations and defense. He embarked upon a series of Soviet-style five-year plans that emphasized state-controlled agriculture and heavy industry as well as titanic defense spending. Simultaneously, he built a cult of personality that outdid Stalin’s, one that rivals most religions in terms of fervent devotion. He fashioned himself the Great Leader: textbooks and state-controlled media invested him with almost magical powers, and towns and cities are littered with innumerable heroic murals and statues. Interaction and free exchange with the outside world was severely limited in favor of state-controlled propaganda, every citizen to this day must wear a red enameled pin of Kim’s face, and his birthplace is both a pilgrimage and shrine.