The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea

While I was reading the footnotes in my last book, North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter, I came across the name Charles Robert Jenkins. That name sounded very familiar, and I realized it was the name of the author of a book I was planning to read later. His name appeared in more footnotes and as I pieced together his significance in the Megumi Yokota kidnapping case I made it a priority to read his book next. 

The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea by Charles Robert Jenkins with Jim Frederick sums itself up in its lengthy title. While serving at the Demilitarized Zone which divides North from South Korea, U.S. Army Sgt. Jenkins deserted his troops in January 1965 and crossed over to the North. The reasons for his desertion are a matter of debate, with both the North and the United States claiming he did so for political reasons. Was Jenkins a communist sympathizer who was disenchanted with the American army’s presence in South Korea? Jenkins claims that he sneaked across the DMZ because he was drunk (having finished off ten beers) and that he did not like the hunter killer team missions he was ordered to enact. Jenkins also feared that his team would be deployed to Vietnam. He believed that if he fled to the North, they would ship him to Moscow and then he would be sent home to the United States where he would face charges for desertion and likely serve a short prison sentence.

He couldn’t have been any more wrong. Jenkins realized this almost immediately after he defected. Once he had crossed the DMZ, he was never going to get out. The North was going to use him as a valuable propaganda tool. While the citizens of the North suffered famine and shortages of basic amenities, Jenkins acknowledges that he was always “well off”, which, by North Korean standards, still put him well below the American poverty line. For close to forty years he had leaders who accompanied him everywhere, although it was funny to read about Jenkins’s escapes through Pyongyang on his own, and on many occasions, drunk. Jenkins would occasionally rail against the Korean Workers’ Party and insult the Great Leader Marshal Kim Il Sung in the presence of his leaders. This is a capital offence, and a North Korean who commited this act would have been executed. Because Jenkins was much more valuable to the “Organization” (Jenkins’s term for the ruling party) alive, his insults were left unpunished. 

With little to do in the North except drink and smoke, Jenkins comes across in this memoir as a gravel-voiced rubby, letting his mouth run loose with a microphone and a case of ginseng liquor. The Reluctant Communist reads like a drunk soldier’s monologue, full of profanity and macho army talk. It was very funny to read in places, especially where he is exasperated with the North Korean way of doing things, and he tells his leaders all too often to go to hell. The drunken-transcript format made for a rapid read, however it made me wince whenever I encountered Jenkins’s overuse of the redundant “off of”. Jenkins always added the second preposition whenever he used the word “off”.

When Jenkins deserted to the North he was the fourth American soldier to do so in the 1960’s. He was housed with the other soldiers and lived with them off and on for decades. Throughout the book he refers to this group as a bunch of “fuck-ups”. He also writes: 

“Growing all that corn allowed my wife and I to have corn noodles for lunch every day of our lives for more years than I care to remember. There is no food in the world that I am more sick of than corn noodles. I will never eat another corn noodle as long as I live.” 

The wife he is talking about is none other than Hitomi Soga, who, like Megumi Yokota, was one of the Japanese kidnapped and brought to the North. Soga and Megumi were even housed together and lived together for eighteen months. Jenkins himself saw Megumi only once in a chance encounter while out with his wife. In fact, the wives of all four American soldiers were kidnapped foreigners. The men were introduced to these women and were persuaded to marry them. Jenkins married Soga 38 days after being introduced to her. Their meeting and courtship was told rather tenderly, a departure from the typical Jenkins drunken North Carolina drawl style.   

In 2002 negotiations between Japan and the North finally saw the release of Soga and other kidnapped Japanese. Jenkins was allowed to leave two years later. After an army trial he was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to thirty days in jail. Today Jenkins and Soga live on Sado Island, Japan, the very place where Soga was kidnapped in 1978.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *