The Reluctant Communist by Charles Robert Jenkins with Jim Frederick

I came to this book from my reading (listening) of Escape From Camp 14, which I… ‘enjoyed’ is not the word, but I was very impressed by it. That was the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a North Korean political prisoner labor camp and lived there until he escaped in his early 20’s. It was shocking and informative. I believe it was in the closing of that book that the author mentioned Charles Robert Jenkins and his unique life story, which he tells in The Reluctant Communist. And thanks to my local public library, here we are.

Jenkins was a sergeant in the US Army stationed in South Korea in 1965, and he was miserable. Clouded by exhaustion and alcohol, he concocted a scheme: he would desert and earn himself a short jail stay, and end up home in North Carolina. He crossed the demilitarized zone into North Korea, turned in his rifle, and waited to be offered up to the Russian consulate, then to be shipped out. But things didn’t work out that way for him. His greatest mistake was his ignorance of North Korea. He would later come to describe it as “a country that is little more than a giant prison.”

Jenkins was kept in North Korea for 40 years. “As a POW?” asks Husband. No, just as North Korean citizens are kept, more or less – better off than most, in fact. The country’s own citizens are captives; leaving is not an option. Rather, propaganda and starvation are the norm in this militarized, destitute country. Jenkins was settled with three other US deserters in a little community so that the “Organization” (the government and the party, as a collective force) could guard and guide them. They receive educations in propaganda just like any good North Korean; they are given some work, here and there, and a tiny living. In fact, the treatment of the four Americans is well above average in this poor country, but would be considered inhumane by Western standards. Eventually they are given “cooks” – women who cook for them and provide sexual services – and later, wives. These wives are abducted foreigners. Jenkins is presented with a Japanese abductee and told fairly straightforwardly that he should rape her, but instead he takes his time getting to know Hitomi, teaching her English, and finally convincing her to marry him of her own free will. This is a remarkable story, under the circumstances, and perhaps the most surprising part of the book.

Hitomi and Jenkins have two daughters together, who are something like 18 and 20 years old by the time their situation begins to change. In a strange turn of diplomatic events, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il admits to Japan that his country had indeed abducted a number of Japanese citizens, as suspected, and named Hitomi as one of them. This eventually leads to Hitomi’s being sent home to Japan, and twenty-one months later, Jenkins finally leaves North Korea and with their two daughters, joins his wife in Japan, where they live at the time of this book’s publication and (as far as I can tell) today. The family also got to make a trip to North Carolina to reunite with Jenkins’s living relatives: his mother (suffering from Alzheimer’s and only mostly aware of his return) and several siblings. Along the way, he turns himself in to the United States Army, faces trial for desertion, and serves his sentence: one month in jail. Jenkins is very contrite and emphasizes the wrongness of leaving his troop of men without a leader and deserting his post. He addresses the idea that a one-month sentence was rather short, but points out that he was offered clemency for a few good reasons: he feels remorse; he never intended to join or aid the enemy; and he had already suffered 40 years of imprisonment.

This is a hell of a story. After a Foreword told in journalist/coauthor Jim Frederick’s voice about the role he plays in its construction, the book is told from Jenkins’s first-person perspective. As Frederick states is his intention, this voice is simple and straightforward. There are mannerisms that indicate Jenkins’s lack of formal education, but if anything, this unpolished style makes the story he has to tell all the more powerful. (In fact, I was reminded a little bit of Jaycee Dugard’s A Stolen Life.) I can’t overemphasize how moving his tale is. Go read the book. It’s extraordinary to think about the privations and hopelessness, the extent to which Jenkins is cut off from the world. And then, to imagine something like a modest love story developing under those circumstances… Hitomi abducted from her hometown, thrown to a man who doesn’t speak her language, convinced to be his wife as a means of self-preservation… the whole thing is disturbing. We only have Jenkins’s own perspective on their relationship, of course, but it sounds like they developed a loving relationship in an awful environment. It’s charming to read about their quiet life at liberty in Japan today.

Charles Robert Jenkins has a very unique and odd life story, and I found it both moving and educational to read about. If I had the chance to speak to him, I’d thank him for sharing it with us.

Rating: 6 pieces of sushi.

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