Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
Another clear conviction: Robert tells the truth. There have been numerous times when Robert told me something that either sounded insane, trumped up, or nonsensical only to have my doubts shattered by the realization that he was—despite my suspicions or my frequently patronizing conclusion that, oh, he’s just gotten a little ahead of himself—absolutely correct. As we were working on the book, some of the back stories he gave me on how the Americans’ wives got to North Korea sounded a little farfetched. But, to use the most publicly vetted example, consider how almost everything he said about Larry Allen Abshier’s wife, Anocha, has turned out true. When Jenkins was finally allowed to leave North Korea in 2004, he says, North Korean officials went through all of his photos (some of which appear in this book) and confiscated any that included non–family members. But they missed a snapshot with a South Asian–looking woman in the far left of the frame, a woman Robert identified as Anocha. When CBS News ran a story online about whether Anocha might be the first confirmable non-Japanese North Korean abductee along with this photo in late 2005, the story winded back to Thailand, and Anocha’s brother came forward to identify her and corroborate virtually everything Robert said about her history.
That revelation proved a huge boost to Robert’s international credibility and started the hunt for more non-Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, of whom Robert says there are many. It is a topic that newspapers throughout South Asia are taking very seriously. I doubt they will have much luck in getting the North Koreans to admit anything, considering how long it took the Japanese to make headway on the issue, but it’s a start. After the book was published in Japan, the mother of Jerry Wayne Parrish’s wife, Siham, also resurfaced, confirming Robert’s version of her story as well. After numerous similar occurrences, I am inclined to take what he says about, for example, the identity of Seoul City Sue, whether fellow American James Dresnok habitually beat him to a pulp, and a host of other topics as truthful until proven otherwise. Although Dresnok recently denied to a documentary film crew in North Korea that he ever beat up Robert in anything more than a single fair fist fight, it seems to me such an odd thing to fabricate, and a thing that reflects poorly on Robert (what soldier would want to admit he couldn’t defend himself against another?), I can’t imagine why he would make a story like that up.
What else? I am impressed by Robert’s resilience, his tenacity, and his absolute refusal to quit. I am impressed by his desire to try to set things right, which I think comes from somewhere deep in his soul, and his willingness, at the first realistic chance he got, to risk, for all he knew, a life in a U.S. military prison so his daughters could have a better life. He’s a completely ordinary man who almost literally stumbled into history yet made amends for his heartbreaking, colossally tragic error with bravery and integrity.
Jim Frederick October 2007
I would like to thank the following people for all of their help and support:
When Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi came to North Korea for his first, big, one-day summit with Kim Jongil on September 17, 2002, we didn’t know about it until he had already left. My wife, Hitomi, and I were watching TV that night and the announcer on the state-run news program (the only kind of news available in North Korea) said that Koizumi had been to Pyongyang for a visit, and that “repatriating Japanese who were living in North Korea” was one of their topics of discussion. The news made it sound like the two leaders talked about the fates of families with Japanese roots who, for various political and diplomatic reasons, had been stuck in North Korea since the chaotic aftermaths of World War II or the Korean War.
The show didn’t include anything about the Japanese citizens, possibly numbering in the dozens, that North Korea had kidnapped from Japanese soil in the 1970s and 1980s and forced to teach at its spy schools. The show did not even mention the word “abductee,” but I turned to Hitomi and said, “This has got something to do with you.” She waved me off, saying, “No way.”
I ran into the closet and pried up some of the floorboards under which I hid my radio. It was a little portable job that a friend of mine bought years ago from some Syrian medical students who were studying at the No. 11 Hospital in downtown Pyongyang. I couldn’t get NHK (Japan’s public TV and radio broadcaster) right away, but I did get Voice of America. The lead story: Koizumi confronts Kim over abductees at historic summit. I said, “God damn! I knew it!” Hitomi’s English isn’t so great, so I gave her one side of the earphones and translated the newscast as it was broadcast. We were stunned. Kim confirmed for the first time that North Korea had systematically stolen Japanese people for decades, and he revealed that some of these abductees, including my wife, were still alive in North Korea.
The Japanese government and media were totally surprised that someone named Hitomi Soga was one of the abducted that North Korea admitted to having still. She was not on the roster of suspected abductees that the Japanese government had submitted ahead of the meeting, and you could hear the newscasters that night scramble for details on this unknown woman. “Who is she? Where did she come from? Why didn’t the Japanese know about her before? We will bring you details as we uncover them.”
By the afternoon of the next day, the radio networks had started to piece it all together, and by the time I tuned into NHK that evening, they had almost the whole story. They knew not just the details of Hitomi’s abduction in 1978 from her hometown on Sado Island, but that she was now married to me, Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, a mysterious American who, for reasons unknown, was thought to have walked across the DMZ and into the communist dictatorship on a cold January morning in 1965.
As we finished listening to the news that second night, we didn’t know what it all meant or what was going to happen to us, but we did know that some people from the Organization would be coming for us soon.
And the next morning, they did.
1 | Super Jenkins
My first memories are of World War II. One day, late in the summer I was five years old, the fire engine in our town was running up and down the main street with its lights flashing and sirens blaring. Rich Square, North Carolina, where I was born, was a small, poor town, so the main drag was only a few blocks long and had only a single stoplight. But when the engine got to the end of the street it would turn around and come back the other way, clanging and making a racket, over and over again. I asked my mother why the fire truck was doing that, and she said it was celebrating because the war was over.
The winter before that, I remember my mother would go to a little shed in a cotton patch on the edge of town in the middle of the night a couple of times a week. She was part of a rotation with others from town pulling watch for the German air raids that everybody feared but that never came. I spent many nights in that little shack there with her, playing with whatever little wooden or tin toy I brought, while she scanned the skies.
My father never pulled air-raid watch. He was too busy working. He worked down at the ice plant only a couple hundred yards from my house, and he was working all the time. For days at a time, I would rarely see him. He was the foreman, though the plant was small. Usually he oversaw two other men at a time. He often said that the plant never took a break, so neither could he. He would come in to the house at, say, 4:00 a.m. and get two or three hours of sleep. Then he would head back to the plant, work until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., come home and have dinner, get a few more hours sleep, and then head back out to the plant before dawn. That was typical. My father was drafted into World War II, but he never served. The doctor from our town wrote the draft board to get him out of going, not for any medical reason but because, the doctor wrote, “the town’s gotta have ice.”
My father was a big man, not like me. At a different plant he worked at in a nearby town called Rocky Mount we moved to for a few years, there was an elevator that would carry the fivehundred-pound blocks of ice up to the freight train cars for loading, but it broke a lot. When it did, my father would grab the blocks one by one with a giant set of tongs and drag them up a ramp to the train all by himself. At times like these it seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do.
Drinking was his weakness. He liked his alcohol, and Three Bears Whiskey was his favorite drink. When he wasn’t drunk, he was all right, but drinking got him into trouble a lot. His name was Clifton Rose Jenkins, but he hated his middle name—and he was none too fond of his first name, either, to be honest. One day, one of the black men who worked for him came into the office and said, “Hiya, Clifton.” This was a time when open racism was still a regular part of American life, especially in the South. We called blacks “negroes” or even “niggers” back then and didn’t think twice about it. Blacks were forced to use different water fountains and different bathrooms, and when they came to a white person’s house, they had to use the back door. And when a black man talked to any white man, especially his boss, like this one was doing, he was supposed to address his boss formally— as in “Mr. Jenkins”—not use his first name. So my father, who was drunk at the time, picked a pistol out of the desk drawer and fired it at the man, missing him by only a couple of inches. A few days later, Mr. Boomer, who owned the ice plant, came down to the plant to see my father and give him hell for what he’d done. Even though it was a Sunday morning when Mr. Boomer came by, my father was drunk again, and you could hear them fighting from halfway down the street. Things got so heated that my father said, “to hell with it,” and climbed the electrical pole outside the plant. Usually you need spikes to climb a pole, but my father scampered up it like a big old bear, pulled the switch, and cut all the electricity to the plant. “Let your damn ice melt!” my father yelled. Mr. Boomer later told my mother that my father was the best worker he had ever seen, but he could hardly bear all the bad behavior that came with him.
My mother was born in North Carolina, in a town not far from Rich Square. Her family, the Coggins family, were cotton farmers and so was my father’s, so my mother and father knew each other when they were little kids. My father was about five or ten years older than my mother. The story goes that the first time he saw my mother, she was a baby, sitting in her bassinet. He was just a little kid, obviously, but he declared, “I’m gonna marry her some day.” And sure enough, he did. My mother was a teenage bride, no more than sixteen or seventeen, and soon after they got married in 1930 or 1931, they started having kids. We had a large family. After losing twins at birth, my mother gave birth to three girls within just a few years of each other: Olivia, Anne, and Faye. Then came me, my sister Audrey, my brother Gene, and my sister Pat, who was born in 1950.
I got along with my brother and sisters well enough, and my mom always tried to make sure we had enough to eat, but that was tough. With seven mouths to feed, my parents were just barely getting by. Even in a poor town in a poor part of the country, we were still pointed at and whispered about as a poor family. At school, lunch cost twenty cents, but the poorest kids didn’t have to pay. My brother, sisters, and I never had to pay. All of us wore hand-me-down clothes, whether they were church charity giveaways or from neighbors just taking pity on us. It was hard on our pride, of course, but we had no choice. The house I lived in for most of my childhood was a dump. Originally built as a warehouse, its walls were thin wood and provided very little insulation. My father split the place up into rooms. We didn’t have an indoor bathroom or running water until the laws changed, making those things a requirement in every home, and my father had to put plumbing in.
There was no doubt that my father was a hard worker—one time he got a gold medal for making the most ice in the entire chain of ice factories that owned his plant—but the ice business wound up killing him. One day, a large ammonia pipe at the Rocky Mount plant broke. Ammonia was part of the process— how you made ice—because it has good properties for refrigeration, but it is also highly toxic. The pipes would break a lot, and on this day he was in one of the boiler rooms, a small place, fixing that busted ammonia pipe all day and into the night. He must have inhaled tons of the stuff. He came home late that night, maybe 11:00 p.m. or midnight. I had just turned eleven years old and was already in bed, but he came into the kitchen, took his seat at the kitchen table, and put his head down to rest. My mother turned around to the counter to fix him a plate of supper. When she came back with his food, he was dead. He had an insurance policy of $1,000, which left my mother enough money to give him a decent funeral and burial and not much else.