Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
3 | Housemates
In the house on the border, they blindfolded me, searched me, and sat me down in a tiny room, more like an empty closet, really, about one yard by three yards, with a guard at the door. None of the eight or ten soldiers who would come in and out of the adjoining room spoke English, but I could catch the gist of some of the things they were saying just from their gestures. They were very curious about me. “Is he alone?” “Why did he come here?” And this was the biggest question as they inspected my M-14 and looked at the rounds in my ammo pouch: “Why is his weapon unloaded?” They just couldn’t fathom it. There was a small fireplace, more like a covered brick stove, in the room, and they let me warm up by it. They brought me food, a simple rice stew, and told me, “Moga, moga.” They gave me a drink that looked like rice paddy water, so I refused to drink it. I found out later that it was simply rice pot water—after cooking a pot of rice, you swish more hot water around the pot, scrape burned rice off the bottom, and pour it into a cup. This is a staple drink in North Korea. I would eventually become very familiar with it, even grow to like it, but at the time, I said, “Uh-uh. No way.”
The man who was obviously the superior officer came into the room and looked me over. He could not speak English, either, but he wanted to know why my face was all bloody. He was clearly concerned that one of his men had laid an unauthorized beating on me, but I was able to make him understand that whatever had happened had happened before his men had gotten their hands on me. After that I sat there, saying nothing, no one saying anything to me, in that little room until afternoon.
As the afternoon wore on, some of the soldiers came in and put a blindfold on me, tied me up, and trundled me into a Russian jeep. A driver and a captain sat in the front, and two guards sat on either side of me in the back. We drove about an hour to a military base in Kaesong. Inside one of the buildings at the small base, they started interrogating me. It was just the basics: name, rank, serial number. The interpreter didn’t know much English; he was reading out of a book. I got the feeling that they were just killing time, and I was right. Within an hour, we were back in the jeep and driving again.
After a five- or ten-minute drive, we pulled up at what looked like a private house. It was now about seven o’clock. There was a colonel there, along with seven or eight other uniformed North Koreans, and based on the way it was decorated, I guessed it was the colonel’s private home or maybe a government guest house. They put me in a big room, about twelve tatami mats (so, about two hundred square feet total), with a big, long table and chairs. I was alone, and the room was cold. One of them brought me a dinner of rice soup and canned fish.
After dinner, they started in on what was more like a proper interrogation. They had finally found a translator who knew what he was doing, for starters. The colonel was the main interrogator. He would ask something in Korean, and the interpreter would ask the same thing in English right after him: “Why did you come here?” “Where is the rest of your unit?” “Who else is with you?” “How did you make it across the DMZ?” Throughout the session, he never raised his voice, and he never used a questioning technique even close to torture or coercion. As much as I hate to admit it now, he was almost a gentleman. In my opinion, North Korea was a lot stronger in a lot of ways then than it is today. Back in those days, the military seemed like a real military, and they even seemed to have a kind of dignity and pride in their professionalism. And the whole economy wasn’t that bad in those days. In those first few years, it was obvious just from looking around that North Korea was doing at least as well financially as South Korea. They were our enemies, but they were enemies worthy of respect. Today, like everything else in North Korea, the army has completely degenerated. The troops are starving along with the rest of the people. The enlisted men are little more than kids in rags, and the officers are totally corrupt. And no one knows the first thing about military subjects anymore. The only thing about the North Korean Army that we have to respect is the number of South Koreans and Americans they could kill if they ever decided they wanted to.
There was another officer in the room besides the colonel, the translator, and a couple of guards. The other officer didn’t say a word, something I found unnerving, which was probably the point. The colonel threw a number of maps at various levels of magnification in front of me. “Where did you come from?” “Where is your unit stationed?” “Where are there other units stationed?” Here, I knew I was getting into territory that could put American lives at risk, but one of the best things I had going for me was that since I had only been in country for a few months, I honestly didn’t know much.
I pointed to the mountain where my guard post, Guardpost Desart, was, but I didn’t see any harm in that, since it was clearly visible by the North Koreans already. While on duty, I had often seen them through my binoculars looking at us through their binoculars. I even pointed out the locations of their loudspeakers on their side of the line that they used to blast propaganda and military music at us. That got them interested, when I pointed out Desart. “How tall is this mountain?” the colonel asked. I can’t recall the exact number now, but I replied whatever the real height was, so many thousand feet tall. The officer who hadn’t spoken before jumped up and yelled what must have been “Liar!” in Korean, and he punched me square across the face. I started to gush blood again. “There is no mountain around here that tall,” he continued through the interpreter. Obviously, he thought I gave him a height in meters, but I was not so handy with the metric system back then, so I couldn’t covert it into a height he’d understand. Finally, I got the interpreter to understand the problem enough to explain it. That interrogation lasted three or four hours. I thought I was there for the night, but at 11:30, they told me we were catching a train for Pyongyang.
The two guards, the captain who had been with me since the first jeep ride, and I boarded a regular train car. Five minutes after we sat down, the captain got up and made an announcement, and all of the civilians who had been sitting there got up and evacuated, so it was us four alone for the trip. At one point, I noticed that the guards, who were still carrying all of my weapons, were playing with the two grenades I had brought with me. I have never been so nervous in my life. They were a new style of grenade even for us, so I was certain the guards had never seen anything like them before, and I was worried that one of them would accidentally detonate one. So I tried to tell them, in super-slow English, about the pin, saying, “No touch that. Very dangerous.” I don’t know if they were offended, but this was not the way I planned on dying, so even though I was the prisoner, I didn’t care. Eventually they stopped playing with the grenades, but it was probably as much because they got bored as it was because of my telling them not to. Relieved and finally able to relax, I fell asleep—the first sleep I had gotten in almost forty-eight hours. I didn’t wake up until 5:30 a.m., when the train had already arrived in Pyongyang in an underground station.
After getting off the train, the captain, the two guards, and I waited about thirty minutes for a car to arrive. It was still dark outside, and there were no lights, so I couldn’t see any of the city. We drove to a house about a third of a mile away from Kim Il-sung University, right in the center of the city. The house was small, only a few rooms, with heavy paper covering concrete floors and a fireplace outside that heated the house from underneath—a typical Korean heating system. The walls were whitewashed clay or cement. They put me in one of the rooms, and a woman brought me food—more simple rice stew. About thirty minutes later, a colonel came in and gave me trousers and a white shirt and took my uniform away.
I was in that house about ten or twelve days. I could not leave the room, except to use the toilet outside or the washbasin in an adjoining room. The lighting was naked overhead bulbs that I was not allowed to turn off, even when I was sleeping. Late that first week, however, they took me into town to get a haircut and a bath. During my time in that first house, two people in civilian clothes came and interrogated me every day from eight or nine in the morning until four or five in the afternoon. I don’t think they were all that qualified to do interrogations, and I again got the feeling that they were killing time until they figured out where they really wanted to put me. Maybe they knew already from the guys who questioned me earlier that I didn’t know anything useful about positions and placements of American forces. I hadn’t been on any field problems, for example, and I told them so. They did, however, want to know a lot about inspections. How often did we have them? How long did we prepare for them? How long did they take? What were officers looking for, and what got you penalized? I didn’t know if they were just looking for ways to improve their own drills or if they were planning on infiltrating one of our units by having a North Korean pose as one of the Republic of Korea Army troops who sometimes used to train with us. The interrogators then wanted to know a lot about my weapons, which was more understandable. How does the M-14’s automatic selector switch work? What is the blast radius of the hand grenades? Realizing that the answers to all of these questions had the potential to put American lives at risk, I did my best to answer them as incompetently as I could without arousing their suspicion.
At the end of those ten or twelve days, the colonel reappeared and told me to get my things together quickly: I was moving in with three other U.S. servicemen who had walked across the DMZ. I knew who they were already. All along the South Korean side of the DMZ, these guys—Private First Class Larry Allen Abshier, Private James Joseph Dresnok, and Specialist Jerry Wayne Parrish—were notorious the way I assumed I now was. The colonel and I got into another jeep—I noticed that I was no longer being very heavily guarded, if at all (I guess they figured, “Where is he going to go?”)—and drove about ten minutes to a neighborhood called Saedong.
We pulled up to a little brick house, and Dresnok and Parrish were waiting for me. Abshier wasn’t there. He was in the hospital for colitis and wouldn’t rejoin the house until the late summer. We all introduced ourselves and started talking. I was starved for anyone who could speak English, and they were also happy to have another person to break up the boredom. Just like the North Korean interrogators, they, too, were full of questions. The first thing they wanted to know was why I came over. They were all enlisted men who were in trouble with the army, and they couldn’t imagine why a sergeant who wasn’t already up for some sort of court-martial would cross the DMZ. I told them I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Dresnok shook his head at that one and just said, “Well, you may have had one foot in the pot, but you just jumped in the fire.” We all got along okay that first night. We assumed (as we almost always did) that everything we said was being recorded, but they were so hungry for anything new in their lives that after I ran out of world events to tell them about and after trying to figure out how many people we knew in common, I stayed up all night telling them every single joke I could remember.
The next Saturday, one of the North Koreans in charge walked me to the hospital to meet Abshier. We talked for about thirty minutes, and I’ll never forget that one of the first things Abshier asked me was if I had any money, because they had a little shop in the hospital where he wanted to buy some things. I told him I didn’t have any money, which was the truth. Abshier would wind up becoming my closest friend of the three, but I came away from that first meeting shaking my head at what a strange, simple, and disconnected man he was.
I didn’t know it at the time, but those three men would, for better and worse, be permanent fixtures of my entire time in North Korea. I got to know them all better than I have known just about anybody else in my life. All four of us were similar in a lot of ways. We were all young, dumb soldiers from poor backgrounds who wouldn’t have had anything if it weren’t for the army, but then we threw that away too by running away from varying degrees of real or imagined trouble rather than confronting our problems head-on. If there was an odd man out, though, it was me. I was slightly older; I was a noncommissioned officer while they were enlisted men; and I had a pretty good military record while the other three were pretty much total fuck-ups as soldiers. The way they described it, Abshier and Dresnok were running from the law. They were each up for a serious court-martial before they crossed. Parrish’s reasons were more personal, and he didn’t elaborate about them much except to say that if he ever went home, his father-in-law would kill him. The three of them, also like me, walked across the DMZ without really thinking about the huge consequences of what they were doing and without understanding what North Korea was really like. None of them intended to stay in North Korea, and none of them were communist sympathizers. All of them assumed that they would be able to get out one way or another, and they experienced a rude shock when it dawned on them that they were trapped, forever, in North Korea. All of them quickly grew to hate the country and would have left in a second if they could have.
Over the ensuing decades, sometimes we were the closest of friends, and sometimes we were the bitterest of enemies. Sometimes we could count on each other for support against the insanity of North Korea, while at other times the insanity itself would encourage us to turn against each other. At first we were housemates, struggling just to stay alive and sane during frequent periods of cold, hunger, and despair. And decades later, when we all had started families of our own, we formed a strange, insular little community of foreigners in the world’s most strange, insular, and foreign society. What a sorry-ass little foursome we were when I stop to think about it.
That Saedong house was the first of many places I lived in North Korea over the next forty years. We only stayed there for about six months. It was a simple brick house with two bedrooms. Whichever government official was watching us took one bedroom. We Americans shared the other bedroom, which was only about six mats big (or about one hundred square feet) and had three desks crammed into it. We slept on the floor any way we could manage, and it was a tight fit. Other than that, there was a room for the cook, a kitchen, and a dining room with a table and chairs that we were not allowed to use. (We ate our meals in our bedroom or outside if the weather was nice.) The dining room sometimes housed extra military officers whenever they showed up. The toilet was outside, and there was only cold running water in the house, but the running water rarely worked, so usually we had to fetch water from the well, too. The whole house was surrounded by a six-and-a-half-foot-high wood fence, and there was a guard stationed in a crow’s nest atop a telephone pole outside.