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Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick

Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea

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BOOK: The Reluctant Communist
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In preparation for the meeting in Indonesia, I had to decide what I was going to do in the face of all of the variables converging around me. Through it all, the one priority that I never deviated from is that I would try to keep my family together no matter what. If my wife wanted to return to North Korea, then that was that: North Korea was where we would stay. If, however, she wanted to return to Japan, then I would do everything I could to make sure Mika, Brinda, and I could get to Japan. If part of that arrangement required me to throw myself at the mercy of the U.S. government, to whom I was a wanted man, then so be it. If all the other factors required that I went to jail for life, then I went to jail for life. I decided that very early on.

For most of this time, however, I was convinced that Hitomi wanted to come back to North Korea. I was operating under the mistaken assumption that Hitomi was being held against her will in Japan. But still, I had to prepare mentally for the possibility that Hitomi was not coming back and that we would follow all the other families to Japan. There was no way I was going to allow my daughters to be permanently split from their mother. I knew that going to Japan was the best prospect for the family, though it was the riskiest for me. I desperately wanted to get my children out of North Korea. And if there was an opportunity to get my daughters off of the spy route I was sure they were traveling down, I was going to take it. But for me to return to North Korea without them was out of the question. And without my wife and my daughters in North Korea, I was as good as dead anyway. So I resolved, if it came to that, to turn myself in, to go along with the wishes of my wife and to ensure that my daughters had a chance at a free, happy, and prosperous life.

The North Koreans, meanwhile, were doing everything in their power to ensure that I would come back with both my wife and kids. In order to do that, they promised me that we would all live like royalty. They promised me a new car with all the gasoline I wanted, a fully furnished new house in the middle of Pyongyang, new clothes, and a new television. They told me they would bury me in the patriot’s cemetery and drove me there to see the plot. (They also showed me the graves of four Japanese buried there. I saw them. I don’t know who they were, but I think they might have been part of the Red Army faction.) They told me everything I wanted would be Kim Jong-il’s gift. They got me a new suit of clothes for the trip. June 1 is Mika’s birthday, and they threw her one hell of a lavish twenty-first birthday party. There were only a handful of people there, but they provided a huge spread of fish, meats, fresh vegetables, and drinks. They gave her a watch and teddy bear. As part of their campaign to get me to return with the whole family, they even gave me an eighteen-karat gold wedding band to give to my wife in Indonesia.

The only thing to do with the cadres was to play along. I had to pretend that I would do everything in my power to convince my wife to return to North Korea when we were in Indonesia. But I also had to pretend that even if I couldn’t convince Hitomi to come back, there was no doubt that I was coming back with my daughters. At the same time, I had to thwart their attempts to take out “insurance” that we would come back by, for example, letting only one of the girls go to Indonesia. I told them no way, that both girls were going. If they had split up the family like that, there was a good chance it would have been split permanently.

On June 21, I got another letter from my wife, this one hand carried by a representative of a Japanese NGO. In the letter, my wife told me that she had waited for us to come on May 22. She thought I would come and was disappointed that I didn’t, but she could understand why. She said she was looking forward to meeting in Indonesia and that once we were there, we could decide at our own pace where we should live. First of all, she said, the four of us needed to reunite. And then we could discuss our future at our own pace. “We four can live with no problems regardless of where we wind up,” she wrote. “I am sorry that I missed being with the family on Mika’s birthday, but we will not fail to be together on Brinda’s on July 23. May the days go very fast until we meet again.”

If the North Koreans tried harder than ever to charm me into staying during the two months between the meeting with Koizumi and leaving for Indonesia, they also tried harder than ever to scare the hell out of me about the United States. They continued to show me all these news stories from the West about what the United States planned to do to me and how there would be no mercy for me. Even Dresnok got in on the act. Those final few months, he would come over for coffee as often as he could. He said he didn’t have his radio anymore, so he always wanted to talk about the news. He was just speaking his mind. I don’t think the cadres coached him on what to say, but he would always tell me how the army was going to string me up and send me to jail for life. Considering my nerves at the time, his opinion didn’t help much, but I understood where he was coming from. I think in both of our minds we were seriously considering that I might never be coming back, though we could never discuss that, and a big part of him was afraid of being lonely. We would sit at a table, drinking coffee, mostly silent since we didn’t know who was listening and couldn’t say all the things we wanted to say. He would often say something about us being the only two left, but he would never finish the sentence.

During this time, Brinda was already bugging me to leave and not come back. Whenever we were alone, she would tug on my arm and say, “Let’s go. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go to Japan.” I would always tell her to be quiet, that she couldn’t say such things out loud. Mika was different. She believed more of the propaganda back then. I don’t know why, but she was a bit more indoctrinated at that point, so I had to be careful about what I said around her regarding any doubts I had as to whether we were coming back.

I tried to prepare for both possibilities. I had to make it look like I was coming back yet also be ready if we didn’t. The trick was to bring things that were important but didn’t look important. The problem was that I couldn’t get back to the house in Li Suk long enough and often enough to be able to pick stuff carefully. I wanted to bring Megumi’s bag, for example, but I couldn’t get to it. In the end, all I was really able to bring was my wedding license and a few dozen photographs.

Some of the photos did turn out to be valuable later. One roll was from May or June. We had to shoot photos of everybody in the apartment building for new citizenship papers: Dresnok, Siham, my daughters, Nahi, Michael, Ricky, and Gabi. Everybody was there but Ricardo. After shooting head shots of everyone, we had some of the thirty-six exposures on Dresnok’s camera left over, so I took some snaps. Once I got to Japan, these were the only photos I had of what the “Western” North Koreans in my little community looked like. I believe that these photos and other information I provided helped me earn a more lenient sentence from the army by convincing prosecutors and investigators that I was sincere in my remorse for deserting and by helping to prove that I would do whatever I could to help America now.

The night before we left, I had dinner with a high cadre at the guesthouse in Pyongyang. Before I left, he gave me five bottles of ginseng liquor to give away as gifts, a carton of Marlboro cigarettes, and $2,000 cash. The next morning, July 8, they picked me and my daughters up, and we paid our respects to the giant statue of Kim Il-sung. We then went to the airport and waited. It wasn’t long before a chartered All Nippon Airways plane pulled up. We got on the Boeing 767. It was a half or a quarter filled. On board, there were Japanese and Korean government people. They had set up a smoking section about midway back on the plane. Mr. Saiki said it was a special concession for the chain-smoking Koreans.

About halfway through the flight, I was smoking, and one of the leaders joined me. “It will be good to see your wife,” he said. “Yes, it will,” I said. “You have a lot of family in Japan,” he said. “I suppose I do,” I said. “It is good to have family,” he said. “Yes, I suppose it is,” I said. I didn’t know exactly where he was heading with this, but I had a feeling. The ashtray was a plastic cup half-filled with water. As he leaned over to drop the butt into the cup, he said to me very quietly, “If you don’t come back, there is nothing we can do.”

Once we touched down in Jakarta, my wife was there on the tarmac along with throngs of media. She arrived a day or two before we did. She met me on the stairs of the plane, and as I stumbled down the steps, I fell into her arms, and she planted a big kiss on me. I was a little surprised, but not as much as I have been told the Japanese were, who it seems found this extreme display of affection a little shocking. As a joke these days, she denies she did this, saying that I grabbed her, but my daughters always interject, “Mama, that’s a lie! They have pictures! The whole world saw it! You grabbed him!”

The bus ride into the city took two hours. I had never seen such a bad traffic jam in my life. In Pyongyang there was rarely any traffic at all, even in the center of the city, but here the streets were jammed with cars. I did not wait long before getting down to business with my wife. I had already been waiting so long, I didn’t see any reason to delay the discussion any further. The bus was full of the Japanese delegation, so I still had to be a little discreet. We sat side by side, not looking at each other while we talked. “Why didn’t you want to have this meeting in China?” I asked. “If we met in China,” she said, “I may have been sent back to North Korea.” So I asked, “You don’t want to go back to North Korea?” “No,” she said quietly but firmly. “But I thought you did,” I said. “The Organization told me that you have been trying and wanting to come back this whole time.” “Gae-so-ri,” she said. (That is dog talk.) “Well,” I thought, “that’s it, then. The decision has been made. We are not going back.”

They put us up in a hotel downtown that was the nicest place I think I have ever stayed. We were in a suite on the fourteenth floor. It was larger than any house I had ever lived in. Brinda and Mika were in a state of shock. The television just blew them away. Actually, it blew me away, too. All those channels. The size of it. The brightness of all the colors. Some of the stuff that was shown, and the fact that it was on twenty-four hours a day. I think that was their very first whiff that there might be a lot more to the outside world than the North Koreans had ever told them. It didn’t take them long to sense that the rest of the world was much more free than North Korea had been. At the same time, there was only so much freedom for us: There was a guard on our door (officers from the Niigata police force, to be specific) twenty-four hours a day. Right across the hall from us was the Japanese delegation, including Saiki and Nakayama.

The next morning, my wife and I continued the discussion we had been having on the bus. To test her resolve on the matter, I said to her, “If you are not going back, then there is no point to me being here. The girls and I will go to China for a little while and then return to North Korea to pick up our new house. I don’t see what the problem is for you to come to North Korea. The Organization says you can go and come as you please. You can take the ferry back and forth. You can visit anytime you want.” She responded, “You know one big reason why I am not going back? It is not just because of me. It is because of you. Because of your family in the United States. If you go back to North Korea, you will never see your mother and sisters again.” “But I am not going to see them anyway, since I am going to go to jail for life!” I yelled. “You are not going to go to jail!” she yelled back. “How can you say that?” I asked. “You can’t say that for sure.” I had realized by then that she and Koizumi were doing everything they could to appeal to the Americans for understanding and leniency in my case, but I also knew that my wife was in no position to offer me assurances about how the U.S. Army was going to choose to punish me. Whenever it was I had to face my accusers, I knew at least on that count, I would be doing it alone.

It was around that time I also realized that the power between my wife and me had changed. In North Korea, I was primarily responsible for protecting her and providing for her, and she would do what I thought was best for us almost without exception. She needed me. Now, however, the equation had changed. I would have to listen to her; she would be my guide. I now needed her more than she needed me. This change in our relationship has been one of the most noteworthy parts of our lives together since 2002, and, to be honest, sometimes one of the hardest for me to adjust to.

Not long after that conversation with my wife, we called the Japanese delegation in to tell them our news: We had decided not to return to North Korea. We had a meeting and discussed where we were going to live, my fears of the U.S. government taking me by force, things like that. We had little meetings like that often over the eight or nine days we were in Indonesia.

It would be wrong to assume from the way that I am talking about this that any of these decisions were easy or that I was not feeling a tremendous amount of anxiety. On that second night, my nerves were a mess. I drank two bottles of the ginseng liquor that the high cadre had given me the night before I left. As liquor tends to do, it made me feel good at first. I asked my wife if she wanted to go dancing downstairs at the cabaret they had at the hotel. She said, “Hell, no.” I said, “Suit yourself. I’m going down.”

I started to walk out the door, but the guard at the door wasn’t letting me out. I told him to get out of the way. Before I knew it, there were four Japanese at the door, and the argument moved into the suite. I said, “You are not the bosses of me. I am not Japanese. You cannot tell me what to do.” They didn’t speak much English or Korean, but they were not budging. I started yelling, “I spent forty years being a prisoner and now I am a prisoner again? Who do you think you are? Get the hell out of my way!” They kept talking, and talking turned to yelling, and then the pushing started. A government official, someone I had never seen before (and never saw again), moved to the front. I grabbed his necktie with two hands—at the end and at the knot— putting him in a hold. He wasn’t going anywhere. They pulled me off of him, which was a good thing, since I can’t imagine what I would have done to him next. I realized it could not escalate any further without there being big problems. Saiki had showed up by that time and yelled, “If you don’t sit down and stay where you are for the rest of the night, I will turn you over to the Americans right away!” I told Saiki, “Go ahead. I know the Americans can’t touch me here!” But after I had calmed down, I told them, “It’s fine. I’m not going to the bar.”

BOOK: The Reluctant Communist
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