Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
People always ask me if I think I was brainwashed, or they ask how long it took me to undo all the propaganda I absorbed. I can honestly say that I was never brainwashed, and all four of us Americans never bought into any of the phony history, economics, social theory, and Kim Il-sung worship that they shoved down our throats. I can’t tell you why, except to say that it all looked as heavy-handed and ridiculous to us from the inside as it does from the outside. They didn’t use any of the sophisticated brainwashing and mind control tricks you see in the movies, though I am not sure those work in real life anyway. All they did to us four was make us study and memorize and conduct selfcriticism endlessly. In the end, the never-ending drudgery made us less receptive to what they were trying to convince us of rather than more. Perhaps if you are Korean, and especially if you had been brought up this way, it might be possible to believe all, or at least most, of what they tell you, but since we were brought up knowing the outside world, we knew it was all lies, and we didn’t start thinking it was the truth simply because they insisted it was.
We studied about ten or eleven hours a day. If we didn’t memorize enough or were not able to recite portions of our studies on demand, we were forced to study sixteen hours a day on Sunday, which was usually our only day of rest. And if one of us failed, we all were punished. Early on, the passages we were supposed to memorize were in English. But then they moved us toward memorizing the passages in Korean, even though most of us didn’t know Korean. (At first, the Organization didn’t want us to learn Korean, thinking that it was better for us not to know what was going on, and before I arrived, they even went so far as to teach the others a bogus Korean alphabet. After a while, however, they realized we were going to wind up learning Korean, or at least how to speak Korean, no matter what they did, so they relented and decided to teach us regular grammar and reading.) Until I really learned the language, however, I would have to memorize passages phonetically, writing out every syllable in English letters, memorizing everything by sound rather than meaning. To this day, I can recite more Korean propaganda than you could ever hope to hear, in both English and Korean. Sometimes, I think, I recite it in my sleep.
It was during this time that I also really began to understand how important the personality cult of Kim Il-sung was. One time I asked some cadres, “What happens when Kim Il-sung dies?” This was long before Kim Jong-il was the appointed successor, but that is beside the point. I thought it was an innocent and reasonable question. But at that time, to even suggest that Kim Ilsung was going to die like a mere mortal was unthinkable. I caught all kinds of hell for that one. Parrish and Dresnok told me that they thought I got off easy since I had only been in the country for less than a year. If they had asked the same thing, they said, they would have been severely beaten or even sent to prison.
While we were at Mangyongdae, sometimes the leaders would disappear for days or weeks at a time. We were always left in the care of army officers, who still came by in groups of four or five for English lessons, but the officers were more lenient than the leaders. They didn’t care what we did as long as they were learning English, so we had more time for “freedalisms,” which was our word for doing things without permission. There was an old Columbia hi-fi in the Ping-Pong room, and the reception dial actually worked. On it, we could pick up Voice of America and Armed Forces Network, Japan. When no one was around, we would sneak into the Ping-Pong room and listen to the news or a Western radio drama. It took them about a year before they caught on, came in, and modified the radio so that it only picked up Pyongyang Radio Broadcasting Channel 1 and Channel 2.
Soon after we moved into this house, Abshier finally came back from the hospital. Almost as soon as he did, Dresnok started in on him, preying on Abshier’s weakness. Dresnok would throw his clothes around and tell Abshier to pick them up or to wash them. And Abshier would. That was just the way their two personalities were. Dresnok, who was nearly six and a half feet tall and more than two hundred fifty pounds, was a natural-born bully accustomed to getting his way. Abshier, on the other hand, was a simple, sweet, good-hearted soul who was also more than a little dumb and easy to take advantage of. One time on that old Columbia hi-fi, we heard a radio drama of the John Steinbeck book Of Mice and Men, which was about a simpleton named Lennie. After that, Parrish and Dresnok would often call Abshier “Lennie.” They would laugh themselves silly over that. “Hey, Lennie!” they would yell.
I didn’t like any of this. I told Abshier that he had to stand up for himself and quit being pushed around by Dresnok. So one day, Dresnok was giving him his same old shit, and Abshier refused to wash Dresnok’s clothes. Dresnok made a move on Abshier, but I stepped in and beat Dresnok down. I threw the first punch, I admit it, but I whooped his ass. That was the last time Dresnok bothered Abshier in that way, but it was the beginning of a long and turbulent relationship between me and Dresnok, one that often involved spilled blood, usually mine.
One time, we traded dozens of rationed socks we had saved with someone in town for a little boat we hoped to use for fishing. It had so many holes in it that it was almost worthless, but across the river, the North Korean government was building an electrical plant. In the middle of the night, the four of us took the boat across the river, snuck into the power plant past several armed guards, and stole a bag of coal tar to repair our boat. We crawled past the guards with the bag of coal tar on our backs, passing the bag from man to man when one of us became too tired. We used the coal tar to repair the boat, which we then used for fishing in the middle of the night. That was a risky one, since to steal something from the North Korean government is punishable by death, but we were so bored and crazy that we honestly didn’t care.
Another time when the leaders were gone, we snuck up into the attic to see if we could scrounge some old electrical insulators to weight down a fishing net we were making. When we were up in the attic, we found microphones everywhere, pointing into every room. We found the recording deck under the leader’s bed later that day. Parrish collected all the microphones and buried them in our backyard. When our leader at that time, Major Kim, got back, Parrish told the leader that he could have the microphones back if he took him into Pyongyang to buy some wine. Major Kim could have had us all shot for this, of course, but the blackmail worked because he was more worried about his own neck and all the trouble he would be in for allowing such a violation to happen.
Around the spring of 1966, we started having trouble with our rations. We stopped getting as many razors and as much soap. And then the food supplies started to dwindle. We suspected that our leader at the time, Leader Kim (a different guy than Major Kim), was in cahoots with the ration supply guys to skim off of the top of our stuff, figuring there was nothing we could do about it. In the spring, the supply guy came up and said, “Due to shortages, there are no more canned meat rations.” But he had a hog with him that he said that we could have. If we fattened it up for winter, he said, we could butcher it and keep the meat for ourselves. So all that summer and fall, we worked like hell to fatten that hog up. We fed it fish and fish heads, tons of grass, anything we could find. By late fall, that hog was up to about two hundred pounds, and we were just waiting for it to get cold so that the meat we butchered didn’t spoil too quickly. Before that could happen, however, a bunch of cadres came and butchered that hog in our own yard, right in front of our eyes, and carted it off, saying the Organization needed it.
Abshier was so mad he called the Organization a ga-sicki. The word means “dog,” but it is about the worst Korean insult imaginable. Everything screeched to a halt. The cadres went to a guesthouse about three hundred yards away where a bunch of soldiers were staying and brought three of them back with their rifles. They pinned Abshier against a wall and lined up fifty yards away from him. They said they were going to execute him right there if he didn’t apologize. Abshier was shaking and his voice was trembling, but he managed to squeak out that he was sorry for calling the Organization a dog. Through it all, I wasn’t all that worried that they were actually going to kill him. At one point a leader had told me that Kim Il-sung himself had declared us valuable, saying that one American was worth one hundred Koreans. After I heard that, I no longer thought that they would kill us without a good reason. But I know it was easier for me to keep that attitude than Abshier on that day since I wasn’t staring down the barrels of three AK-47s. I think it really shook up Abshier.
Still, for us, the episode was enough to make us try to do something. Our rations were so low that we were going days without food, and our own attempts at farming and raising animals weren’t enough to make up the difference. One afternoon, when we weren’t being watched, we went into Pyongyang and went straight to the Workers’ Party Headquarters. They found an English speaker to talk to us, and we told them that our rations were being stolen by Leader Kim. Of course, they had already called Leader Kim the second we arrived, so he showed up in no time, carted us back home, and gave us round-the-clock studies and extra self-criticism sessions.
A few months later, we went to Pyongyang a second time with the intention of complaining to the Workers’ Party. The second we sat down and started explaining ourselves, the guy listening to us excused himself. We smelled a rat. We knew he was calling Leader Kim, so we said, “Let’s get out of here.” We hustled outside, and there, down the road, we saw the Russian embassy. All this time, I should explain, I had never given up my original plan of trying to get a diplomatic transfer through the Soviet Union back to the United States. By now I had figured out that North Korea was going to do everything it could to prevent that from happening, but I was still holding out for my chance to explain my plight to the Russians. And here it was.
We hightailed it over to the embassy, where we walked right in, no doubt because the Korean and Russian guards assumed we were Russians. Once there, we asked for political asylum. Taken aback, the front desk employee found a translator for us, and he and a diplomat took us into a private room where they listened to our story for more than two hours. He gave us Russian cigarettes and cups of some of the best coffee we had had in ages. Since there were no ashtrays, he told us to stab out the butts in the fine china coffee saucers. I don’t know if he was pretending, but he seemed sympathetic and serious. We felt good about what was taking place. He told us that he needed to talk to Moscow and that he would be right back. He was gone over an hour. When he returned, he said, “I am sorry, but there is nothing we can do for you, and you are going to have to leave and never come back.” We filed out quietly and returned home, not saying a word.
After the Russian embassy incident, three of us concluded, finally, that there was no way out of North Korea and we were going to die there. Parrish, however, held out hope longer than the rest of us and was always trying to concoct schemes for getting out. Once, he tried a solo bid for asylum at the Chinese embassy, but he got turned down there, too. He had ideas about trekking north through the mountains to China or building a raft to float down a river and out to sea. None would have worked, and they never got past the talking stage. For North Korean refugees, it is nearly impossible to escape. And for Westerners as conspicuous as us, we concluded that it was doubly so.
In the fall of 1967, Pyongyang flooded, so officials from the Organization came and said they needed our house. We moved to a new house in Daeyang-ri. It was more remote than the last house, more than an hour drive down a dirt road from the nearest turnoff. It was a nice house, with many small rooms. Again, the leaders were gone for days and weeks at a time, but now we didn’t even have officers coming by for English lessons, so we were mostly just left by ourselves for a few months until a colonel who stopped by learned by chance from one of us that we knew how to make fishing nets.
A few days later, he showed up with forty-four pounds of nylon string and said the Organization needed our nets. That was a bit of a benefit, I suppose, being given so much nylon, considering that usually we scavenged our nylon from the linings of old automobile tires. But we quickly came to hate being given so much nylon, since it seemed like the whole time we were there that all we did was make fishing nets. Once you get good at it, it is not difficult to weave the one-inch holes with your little bamboo needle, but it is hard on your eyes and hard on your back. They told us that we had to make five hundred meters (about 550 yards) of net. And we had to do it in about a year’s time. That was almost impossible, but we did it.
We had learned to improvise some of the materials we didn’t have. Back in the previous house, we would scavenge lead from old car batteries, melting and shaping the sinkers ourselves to weigh down the bottom of the nets. But here, we didn’t have a junkyard nearby, so we made the sinkers out of clay that we would harden in a fire. Likewise, back at the old house, we actually had enough access to wine bottles to make the floats for the top of the net out of real corks. Here, we had to cut the floats from pine bark instead. We had become experts in backwoods fishing wisdom, such as this: What is the secret ingredient to toughen up your nylon net, transforming it from something that will last for a few seasons into something that will last for a few decades? Pig’s blood. After you have finished weaving your net, take the whole thing and soak it in a vat of fresh pig’s blood. (Yes, a few gallons of pig’s blood can be hard to find, but the benefits are great enough that it is worth befriending a butcher, or buying and killing your own pig, or doing whatever it takes.) Once the nylon fibers are thoroughly soaked, let the net dry in the sun. After it is dry, steam the whole net on a stove in a large pot partially filled with water. (Keep the net out of the water by placing it on a few pieces of wood inside the pot itself.) Once the blood has fully cooked into the nylon, take the net out and let it dry again. When you are done, the net will be shiny, black, slick, resistant to snags, and very strong.