In Other Words

Escape from Pyongyang

Gobaek (To Tell the Truth) By Charles Robert Jenkins with Jim Frederick 281 pages, Seoul: Mulpure Publishing, 2005 (in Korean) In January 1965, few people were paying attention to the shadow war being waged on the Korean Peninsula. As the U.S. military campaign in Vietnam heated up, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung was attempting to ...

Gobaek (To Tell the Truth)
By Charles Robert Jenkins with Jim Frederick
281 pages, Seoul: Mulpure Publishing, 2005 (in Korean)

In January 1965, few people were paying attention to the shadow war being waged on the Korean Peninsula. As the U.S. military campaign in Vietnam heated up, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung was attempting to reunify the two Koreas using unconventional warfare. His goal was to launch surprise attacks on U.S. and South Korean patrols and erode the boundaries of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), while sendin g agents across its porous defense lines to subvert the citizenry of the south. The Americans called it a "low-intensity conflict." But American and South Korean soldiers were fighting and dying in counterinsurgency and anti-infiltration missions along the DMZ. The shadow war was just beginning.

For U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, a 24-year-old North Carolina native stationed at one of the many small outposts on the edge of the DMZ, the choice was stark: Risk death in a counterinsurgency operation in East Asia, or risk death in the jungles of Vietnam, where he feared being sent after Korea. Cowardice crept in. The young squad leader felt less and less competent to lead his 8th Cavalry men on recon patrols. Jenkins wanted out. Having heard the story of an army deserter who had defected to East Germany, moved on to the Soviet Union, and was then repatriated back to the United States, Jenkins naively figured that he could model his desertion in the same way. He would simply walk to North Korea, which was then allied with the Soviets, and they would deport him home.

In the cold darkness on the night of Jan. 4, 1965, Jenkins chugged 10 cans of beer and led three other soldiers on his last patrol near Panmunjom. Around 11 p.m., they hiked nearly 2 miles and Jenkins told his men he would go, alone, to check on a noise he heard. He slipped away and hiked north with a compass and stumbled around in the DMZ woodlands. He fell off a small cliff that was too difficult to climb back up and thought it was a sign of no turning back. He wandered into a bomb crater and mucked about in the icy water gathered at the bottom. With a white T-shirt knotted on the barrel of his semiautomatic M-14, he walked until North Korean border guards discovered him.

Charles Jenkins spent the next 39 years living in captivity. Now, two years after his release from North Korea, Jenkins is telling the story of his desertion, the life he created for himself in the Hermit Kingdom, and the events that led to his Army court martial in Japan. Published in Japanese and Korean and written with the assistance of Jim Frederick, Time magazine’s Tokyo bureau chief, Gobaek (To Tell the Truth) is the first account of a foreigner who lived in North Korea for decades. Jenkins’s story traces a simple man’s life set against the backdrop of the Cold War, devastating famine, and Kim Jong Il’s tyrannical rule.

After his capture, he was imprisoned in a decrepit house with three other U.S. Army deserters. One of them, James Dresnok, told him: "You’re here, you’ll never leave." They lived in a small shack with no running water, little heat, and under constant surveillance. There, they were forced to study Kim Il Sung’s propaganda writings in Korean and had to recite it perfectly on spot-check exams.

Desperate though they were, the men weren’t alone. Jenkins describes some of the other foreigners scattered throughout the country. They live in a ghost world; neither true citizens nor foreign visitors protected by diplomatic safeguards. Some, like Jenkins, landed in North Korea by making a single bad decision. He says he knew of people of European and Middle Eastern descent who somehow came to the country on their own and were then detained on a technicality and forced to stay in the perpetual, Kafkaesque netherworld.

Others were kidnapped. An estimated 486 South Koreans and 80 Japanese have been abducted by North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Jenkins claims that the kidnappings were motivated by a North Korean plan to create a master race of spies, wherein the children of mothers and fathers of non-Korean descent were indoctrinated and trained in state schools. Though his claims have yet to be substantiated, he ought to know; one of the abductees became his wife. Hitomi Soga, a 17-year-old Japanese girl, was kidnapped with her mother in 1978 from Sado Island in Japan and transported by boat to North Korea. Soga and Jenkins, an English teacher at the time and 20 years her senior, bonded over mutual desperation and hatred for North Korea. They eventually had two daughters, Mika and Brinda. Half-American and half-Asian, his daughters were highly desirable as spies, Jenkins believed. Party comrades told him that his girls "had the revolutionary spirit, and we need women revolutionaries more than ever." Fearful of losing his children to the North Korean government, Jenkins grew desperate for a way out.

In 2002, Koizumi met Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, where it was confirmed that Japanese citizens had been kidnapped. Five abductees were offered up for release by the Kim regime on a 10-day vacation out of North Korea. Soga was one of them. When she did not return, the story of her attempts to rescue her husband and daughters out of North Korea snowballed in the Japanese press. Eventually, with delicate and deft diplomacy, Koizumi was able to negotiate their release.

The family’s escape from North Korea in 2004 was a rare exception, though. It is unclear how many others are languishing in the closed country, whose children have been sent off to do the state’s dirty work, or even how many will never be heard from again. What bothers Jenkins is just how little the rest of the world seems to care and how few countries have bothered to take a stance on the issue. Although Japanese readers have embraced To Tell the Truth — it has become a bestseller and even spawned a television docu-drama there — South Koreans haven’t shared the outrage. The current national preference is to downplay North Korea’s criminal behavior as though it were uncouth dinner conversation.

And back in the United States, the country whose army and policies Jenkins walked away from so many years ago, he falls somewhere between a treasonous deserter and a long-forgotten remnant of a forgotten war.

To Tell the Truth offers little analysis of Kim Jong Il’s maniacal regime, or the nuclear brinkmanship that has defined the country’s relationship with much of the rest of the world. Hidden away from news of the outside for most of his life, Jenkins knows less about the policies of the country than most foreign experts. But their books are fairly common. With straightforward prose and firsthand detail, Jenkins has delivered a rare account of life in North Korea, told through the eyes of an outsider in the most secretive dictatorship on Earth.

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