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”

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Although the four Americans attained a new level of comfort around this time, when they were allowed to move into their own homes, they were still subject to constant surveillance, beatings and, occasionally, torture. For example, according to Jenkins, in the summer of his first year teaching, the short-sleeve shirts he began to wear to class with the warmer weather revealed an old tattoo on his left forearm: an infantry insignia of crossed rifles above the inscription U.S. army. Officials deemed the tattoo unacceptable, and Jenkins was carted off to a hospital. A doctor, he claims, cut the flesh bearing the offending words from his arm with a knife and scissors—and no anesthetic. "The doctor told me that they save anesthetic for the battlefield," he recalls.

Politics further scrambled Jenkins' life. The school suddenly shut down, he says, just after a deadly exchange along the DMZ that became known as the Panmunjom incident. On Aug. 18, 1976, two American officers were hacked to death with axes and metal pikes by a band of North Korean border guards. The melee broke out after the North Koreans tried to stop American and South Korean soldiers from trimming tree branches that blocked the line of sight. The North Koreans expected retaliation for the killings. "They mobilized for war instantly," Jenkins says. "Everybody evacuated and joined up with their units. It was very tense. Me, I just went home." Over the next several years, Jenkins says, he was forced to study more propaganda and translate English radio broadcasts into Korean. In 1981 the school finally reopened, under the name Mydanghi University, and Jenkins taught there for four more years. In 1985 he was fired for good, he says with a laugh, when the Koreans realized that his English was actually having a negative impact on the students' skills.

But Pyongyang had designs on Jenkins beyond teaching English. Like his three colleagues, Jenkins was a prize cold-war souvenir: an American who had voluntarily wandered into North Korean hands. He was an asset and certainly more valuable alive than dead. "At some point, someone told us that Kim Il Sung said that one American was worth 100 Koreans," says Jenkins. "After that, I didn't think they would kill us without a good reason." His first experience as a propaganda tool occurred soon after he was captured, when he and his fellow deserters were profiled in a cover story in Fortune's Favorites, a state-run publication. And in 1984 he was cast in the North Korean film Nameless Heroes, playing the part of an evil U.S. imperialist.

Jenkins also became convinced that he was unwittingly being used as an asset in another way: to produce Western-looking children that the state could turn into spies. In the mid-1970s, the Americans were allowed to consort only with Korean women the government believed to be infertile. (When Abshier unexpectedly got his Korean girlfriend pregnant, she disappeared.) The regime then decided the deserters should marry foreigners from among the East European, Asian and Middle Eastern women brought to North Korea against their will.

Within a few years, all four Americans had wives. Dresnok married a Romanian, and they had two sons. After she died, he married a half-Korean, half-Togolese woman, and they had a son. Parrish wed a Lebanese Muslim, and they had three sons. Abshier married a Thai woman, but they didn't have children. (Jenkins says Parrish and Abshier are dead. Dresnok, he says, is still living with his family in Pyongyang.) As might be imagined, these unions weren't love stories in any traditional sense. In Jenkins' case, the government in 1980 brought a young Japanese nurse to his door, instructing him to teach her English. Hitomi Soga, 19 years Jenkins' junior, had been abducted from her home on Sado Island in Japan two years earlier. Jenkins says they quickly fell in love, and that his feelings for Soga saved his life. "When I met her," Jenkins says, "my life changed a lot. Me and her together—I knew we could make it in North Korea. And we did.

Twenty-two years." Just 38 days after their abrupt introduction, the pair asked to get married, and the government assented. Jenkins and Soga have two daughters: Mika, 21, and Brinda, 19. Only many years after the girls were born did Jenkins start to suspect they were meant to be spy fodder, a theory that can't be independently confirmed. "They wanted us to have children," he concludes, "so they could use them later."

Back in the U.S., many Americans viewed Jenkins as nothing more than a traitor, particularly given his occasional appearances in Korean propaganda missives. His family had more faith. His nephew James Hyman, for one, argued vigorously for decades that Jenkins was innocent, that he must have been kidnapped on that twilight patrol.

But because little information filtered out of North Korea, by the 1990s Jenkins' plight had drifted into the stuff of legend. He had become a curious cold-war footnote, presumed by many to be dead. Only in 1996 did a Pentagon report state that it suspected there were at least four American defectors, including Jenkins, still living in North Korea. For most of those years, Jenkins was locked in a drab, hardscrabble existence, sustained only by hope that somehow, someday, he and his family could leave North Korea. The bleakness was tempered somewhat over the years, as Jenkins attained a standard of living better than that of most North Koreans. But it was still far below that of most other countries. The Jenkins house had no hot running water, the electricity frequently did not work, and the heating was so feeble that during winter family members wore five layers of clothing at home. By raising their own chickens and growing their own vegetables, however, they usually had enough food, even as others in the country were starving.

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