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  • The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
  • James I. Matray (bio)
The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea, by Charles Robert Jenkins with Jim Frederick. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 192 pp., photographs. $24.95 cloth.

Ghostwriter Jim Frederick, former Tokyo bureau chief for Time magazine, may be correct that Sergeant "Charles Robert Jenkins is, quite simply, a figure of lasting historical importance" because he knows more about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) "than just about any foreigner on the planet" (p. xxi). Near midnight on January 4, 1965, an inebriated Jenkins left the soldiers under his command on patrol just south of the demilitarized zone and walked into North Korea. This memoir relates his experiences over the next forty years "trapped in a country that is little more than a giant prison" (p. 180). Jenkins's tale [End Page 161] would be less remarkable had North Korea not arranged for him to marry Soga Hitomi, whom DPRK operatives abducted at age nineteen from Japan in 1978. His return to face punishment gained international attention in September 2002 when DPRK leader Kim Jong Il admitted to Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro in Pyongyang that North Korea had abducted thirteen Japanese citizens. In anticipation of economic rewards after reconciliation, Kim apologized and allowed visits to Japan by Soga and five other surviving abductees, who then refused to return to the DPRK. Frederick conveys for Jenkins his deep gratitude to Koizumi both for arranging a meeting with his wife in Indonesia and then his surrender to U.S. military authorities in Japan. Tried and convicted of desertion and aiding the enemy, good behavior won him release five days short of completing his thirty-day jail sentence at Yokosuka Naval Base.

Readers will appreciate the context that Frederick provides in his foreword, where he briefly summarizes the history of North Korea. He also explains how he came to write this book because of Captain Jim Culp, Jenkins's U.S. Army lawyer, wanting to reach "a more global audience" (p. xxi) with this story. Relying on interviews with Culp's client beginning on November 27, 2004, Frederick has successfully "pieced together . . . a coherent narrative of his tale . . ." (p. xxviii). Jenkins was born in 1940 in Rich Square, North Carolina, the middle of seven children. A dislike for school caused him to join the National Guard at age fifteen. In 1958, Jenkins enlisted in the U.S. Army, volunteering for two tours of duty in Korea because of rumors of quick promotion. Three years later, his flattery while serving as driver for the camp commander won him promotion to sergeant. His next tour was in Germany, but he returned to Korea with the 1st Cavalry Division in September 1964. Three months later, he decided to desert to avoid defiance of orders to lead "hunter killer teams" in "far more dangerous and aggressive daytime patrols than the routine nighttime ambush patrols" (p. 17) and rumored deployment to Vietnam. His plan was to request transit to the Soviet Union and then back to the United States to be punished. Having committed "a despicable crime" (p. 20), Jenkins admits ignorance in mistakenly entering "a giant demented prison" (p. 21) from which there was no escape.

Jenkins lived near Pyongyang throughout his captivity, limiting the usefulness of his observations and insights. Nevertheless, Korea scholars will find value in learning about now the North Koreans treated him and three other American deserters in their custody—Larry Abshier, [End Page 162] James Dresnok, and Jerry Parrish—who were "all young, dumb soldiers from poor backgrounds" (p. 34). From the outset, the "Organization"—Jenkins's sobriquet for the DPRK power structure—could not decide what to do with its "cold war trophies" (p. 40). The Americans studied and reported to an individual "leader" on the "crazy theory" (p. 44) of juche, as well as making fishing nets and teaching English to DPRK officers. Exploiting considerable freedom, they walked to the Russian embassy in 1966 and asked for asylum. Rejection convinced Jenkins that he was a permanent prisoner, explaining his decision...


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