In From The Cold

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KOJI SASAHARA / AP

RETURN: The deserter turns himself in at Camp Zama U.S. Army base in Japan, declaring, “I’m Sergeant Jenkins, and I’m reporting”

Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins arrived at south Korea's Camp Clinch in 1964. Although he had already served in the Army for six years and had overseas postings, this was by far his most perilous assignment.

The Americans patrolled along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separated the two Koreas and occasionally drew hostile fire from North Korean soldiers across the border—even though an official cease-fire had been in place since 1953. Jenkins had served with enough distinction to find himself leading reconnaissance missions.

But he couldn't cope with the danger.

A seventh-grade dropout from Rich Square, N.C., Jenkins possessed an intelligence that military aptitude tests determined was far below average. He had doubts about his ability to lead men into battle, and he slid into bouts of depression and heavy drinking. His life was about to get worse. Jenkins' unit, he had learned, was scheduled to ship out soon to the live war in Vietnam, a prospect that terrified him. "I did not want to be responsible for the lives of other soldiers under me," he said during his court-martial trial last month. So Jenkins looked for a way out. He could confess his cowardice to superiors and accept the consequences or attempt somehow to flee. He chose the latter option. In the wee hours of Jan. 5, 1965, having downed 10 cans of beer a few hours earlier, Jenkins, then 24, made his move. At first he stuck to his routine, taking command of a dawn patrol near the DMZ. But at about 2:30 a.m., he told his men he was going to check on something up ahead. He disappeared down a hill and never returned. It would be nearly 40 years before he would return to face the U.S. military.

As it turned out, Jenkins' plan wasn't much of a plan. He figured he would cross into North Korea and then try to find a way to Russia, where he would seek some form of diplomatic deportation back to the U.S. and turn himself in. As he made his way toward the border, he tied a white T shirt over the muzzle of his M-14 rifle and traipsed for several hours through the bitter cold, stepping lightly so as not to trip a land mine. Not long after dawn, Jenkins came upon a 10-ft.-high fence. A North Korean soldier spotted him, alerted his comrades, and they whisked Jenkins inside. The American says he realized almost immediately that he had made a mistake.

The North Koreans moved Jenkins to a one-room house that was home to three other U.S. Army deserters: Private First Class James Joseph Dresnok, Private Larry Allan Abshier and Corporal Jerry Wayne Parrish. Life in that initial period, Jenkins says, was an unrelenting hell of hunger, cold and abuse, both physical and psychological. There were no beds or running water; electricity and heat were unreliable. The men were assigned a "leader" who watched their every move, listened to their conversations and constantly threatened them. They were forced to study propaganda 10 hours a day, six days a week, and memorize it in Korean. (To this day, Jenkins can recite lengthy propaganda monologues: "The Great Leader Kim Il Sung taught ...") There were frequent exams. If any of the men failed one, they would all be forced to increase their study to 16 hours a day, every day. Jenkins' tale adds intriguing detail to the outside world's sketchy understanding of North Korean society. No other American who has spent so long a time or seen so much inside what may be the world's most despotic, secretive and brutal society has escaped to tell the tale. While a steady stream of Korean defectors, as well as escapees from its prison camps, has talked of the horrors of the Hermit Kingdom, Jenkins is the first to provide a detailed view of this little-known land from the perspective of an outsider who became intimately familiar with its perverse inner workings.

While unique, Jenkins' experience mirrored the bleak existence that North Koreans have lived through. Ordinary citizens are similarly terrorized and watched over by "leaders" directed by the ruling Workers' Party. Hunger and deprivation are the norm. Speaking in his barely intelligible rural Carolina drawl, Jenkins says North Korean society is "backwards." He seems, even now, like a man on the verge of collapse, his voice cracking as he recalls painful memories. He frequently breaks down in tears.

When Jenkins and the three other American defectors were living together, they barely got along. "It was uneasy," says Jenkins. "The North Koreans made it like that." Under 24-hour surveillance, the four managed a difficult coexistence. When one would commit an infraction—failing to memorize propaganda lessons, complaining about something, leaving the house without permission—their leader would get one of the other soldiers (usually the 6-ft. 4-in., 280-lb. Dresnok) to severely beat the offender. Jenkins soon concluded that feigning fealty was the only way to survive. "In North Korea, when you lie they think you are telling the truth," he says, "and when you tell the truth they think you are lying. You learn real quick to say no when you mean yes, and yes when you mean no."

The men shared the house for seven years, doing little apart from studying. Gradually, they began to despair. They took risks, Jenkins says, that they knew could lead to death. In his amused telling today, their escapades sound almost as if they could be ripped from the pages of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—except that the punishment for getting caught would not be a few lashes with a belt from Aunt Sally but execution.

The Americans even coined a word for doing things without permission in this land of the unfree: "freedalisms." On one occasion, the four swam across a river to pilfer a bag of coal tar from a government construction site to repair their (illegal) fishing boat. "To steal something from the North Korean government is immediately punishable by death," Jenkins said during his court-martial. "I think we all secretly wished we would be caught." Another time, they stumbled upon an array of microphones in the attic of their house and blackmailed their leader (who feared he would suffer if his superiors learned that the bugging had been exposed) into taking one of them into town to buy wine. On yet another occasion, Parrish sneaked out of the house one night to go looking for a girl he had a crush on. But Jenkins, as a practical joke, had given him a bogus address, and Parrish wandered the streets aimlessly for hours. He ultimately got picked up in central Pyongyang by police, who suspected he was meeting a spy contact; the leader had to get him out of jail.

Despite the Americans' penchant for freedalisms, the North Koreans were, after seven years, evidently pleased with their behavior and apparent indoctrination. In 1972, the four received North Korean citizenship ("Whether we wanted it or not," says Jenkins) and were ordered to start teaching English at a military school in Pyongyang, run by the party's Reconnaissance Bureau. Jenkins taught three 90-minute classes a day, 10 to 15 days a month. There were about 30 students in each class. "They wanted us to teach them American pronunciation," he says, a prospect that seems amusing considering many Americans would have trouble deciphering Jenkins' thick accent.

Often the text consisted of translated utterances by Kim Il Sung, who became the North's first leader in 1948, when Korea split into two countries, and remained in power until his death in 1994. The classes studied the guerrilla fighters who took on Japanese soldiers during World War II and discussed the "news" students had heard that morning on state-controlled radio.

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