Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Living Purgatory of North Korea

"I was so ignorant. I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes there, they almost never, ever get out."
"Thinking back now, I was a fool. If there’s a God in heaven, he carried me through it."
Charles Robert Jenkins, 2009 autobiography, Reluctant Communist
Former U.S. Army deserter to North Korea, Charles Jenkins, has died. He was 77
Former U.S. Army deserter to North Korea, Charles Jenkins, has died. He was 77  (AP Photo)

He was just 24, an American Army sergeant stationed at Camp Clinch, a U.S. outpost along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, in 1965. Word was circulating that his unit, the 1st Cavalry Division, was set to be mobilized and sent to the escalating war in Vietnam. He envisioned a fearful "war in the jungle", and a plan took shape in his head for what he later characterized as his "despicable crime". He reported  for duty, leading a patrol along the border with North and South Korea, and his commanding officer failed to notice that Sgt.Jenkins was in a state of semi-intoxication.

He planned to desert his unit, quite simply to walk into North Korea where he would surrender to the first soldiers he would come across, and then to ask to be referred to the Russian embassy. In his mind it was all so workable; from Russia he would be extradited back home to the United States. There he would pay the price for abandoning his unit, and serve prison time, but at the same time he would have effectively averted any personal role in fighting in Vietnam. In due time he would be released, and his normal life in North Carolina resumed.

That, however, didn't quite materialize. He became a "guest" of North Korea, and as such was spared the deprivation suffered by most North Koreans, even the famine that ended up killing up to 3.5 million bypassed him. Not that his life in the hermit kingdom was laudable, as a "guest". As a guest he was subjected to torture and to medical experimentation. As a guest his lifestyle in the capital Pyongyang was without electricity, heat or plumbing; primitive and miserable. He faced forced re-education and became knowledgeable of socialist 'principles'.

The Peoples' Republic maintained him along with several other Americans as captive propaganda tools. Sgt. Jenkins and three other American defectors were a propaganda prize for the North. "You're here, you'll never leave" was the greeting he received by one of the other four prisoner-guests. Shortly thereafter, the American soldiers guarding South Korea were acquainted with what had become of their former colleague when propaganda pamphlets were distributed where images of all four Americans appeared, living an idealized existence of leisure, wealth and access to women.

With the pamphlets, price lists appeared indicating what the North Korean regime would pay for American military equipment surrendered to them. Sgt. Jenkins would receive, for his forty-year guest status in North Korea, extra food rations linked to the M14 rifle he had brought over when he entered North Korea. Jim Jong-il, who succeeded to the dictatorship of the Kim family dynasty in 1994 was obsessed with film as a propaganda medium. The Americans were used as props in films as antagonists for the courageous North Korean soldiers.

Eventually all of the American men were gifted with foreign women to marry; women who had been kidnapped for that very purpose. Sgt. Jenkins was matched with a 21-year-old Japanese women who had been abducted with her mother while walking on the street on Sado Island in Japan by North Korean agents, among some 17 Japanese civilians who were forcibly taken during the 1970s and 1980s, forced to work training North Korean spies in Japanese. Hitomi Soga, given in marriage to Sgt. Jenkins never saw her mother again.

The arranged marriage paired Jenkins, 20 years the senior of Soga, but by some strange alchemy of fate and fortune the two loved one another, and had two children together, daughters who as adults accompanied their mother when she was eventually repatriated to Japan at a time when North Korea had attempted to smooth out relations between itself and their native country. Their father too was permitted to visit his wife, living in Indonesia temporarily. Once there, however, they all flew to Japan when Sgt. Jenkins was 64, aged beyond his years, having lived in North Korea for over 40 years.

Once in Japan he took the step of reporting for duty at a U.S. base in Japan. He received a 25-day sentence for desertion at a court-martial. When he had arrived on Sado, he declared that this was where he would spend his "remaining days""Everyone in Japan knows who I am", he told an interviewer in 2008. Finally, at age 77, he died of heart failure, collapsing outside his home on Monday, the only one of the four American deserters not ending his life still marooned as a 'guest' in North Korea.

FILE - In this July 18, 2004 file photo, former U.S. Army deserter to North Korea, Charles Jenkins, left, escorted by his wife Hitomi Soga, right, and their daughter Mika, center, arrives at Tokyo's Haneda International Airport. Jenkins, who married Soga, a Japanese abductee and lived in Japan after their release in the 2000s, has died. He was 77.(AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye, File)
Jenkins met his wife Hitomi Soga when she was kidnapped by Pyongyang to teach North Korean spies Japanese.  (AP Photo)

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