In From The Cold

  • Share
  • Read Later
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”

(3 of 4)

Indeed, life for Jenkins—as for many others in North Korea—depended on cleverly working the system. He extended his $120-a-month income by trading black-market currency with other foreigners. He made contacts who could smuggle him the occasional English-language novel or Hollywood movie. He rigged a radio to pick up the BBC and Voice of America. He even managed to buy a handgun from a Chinese exchange student. But such liberties extended only so far: even when Jenkins and his family got their hands on a Western videotape, they had to take precautions, pulling the curtains over their windows and turning the volume down to the threshold of audibility.

Such comforts did little for Jenkins' morale. He increasingly became despondent about his children's future. Jenkins was particularly distressed when the government enrolled the girls in Pyongyang's Foreign Language College, an elite institution believed to be a training ground for intelligence operatives. "I knew what they were trying to do," says Jenkins, starting to sob. "They wanted to turn them into spies. My daughters, they could pass as South Korean. There are lots of children of American G.I.s and South Korean mothers in South Korea. No one would doubt them for a second." Since he believed he was locked forever inside North Korea, he didn't see how he could fight it.

Jenkins' world suddenly began to brighten two years ago. The breakthrough was Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il (the son and successor of Kim Il Sung) in Pyongyang. Kim confirmed Japan's long-held suspicion that North Korea had been kidnapping Japanese citizens and forcing them to teach at its spy schools. Soga, Jenkins' wife, was acknowledged to be among the abductees. After the summit, she and the four others Pyongyang said were still alive returned to Japan for what was meant to be a 10-day visit. They never went back to Korea. Soga is viewed as a hero in Japan, and it became a national priority to bring the rest of her family to Japan too. When Koizumi made a follow-up visit to Pyongyang this past spring to retrieve the abductees' surviving family members, he personally told Jenkins he would do everything he could to ensure that he and his family could reunite in Japan. At the time, Jenkins resisted, fearing North Korea's reaction. "They didn't want me to go," he says. "I know if I left that time, I never would have made it to the airport."

After a series of negotiations to find a suitably neutral country to receive Jenkins, Japan and North Korea finally arranged for the American and his daughters to fly in July to meet Soga in Indonesia.

Jenkins had assured Pyongyang that he would return with his daughters and try to persuade Soga to accompany them. "They promised me all kinds of things if I came back with my wife," he says. "They would give me a new car, a new house, new clothes, a new television. They told me everything I wanted would be Kim Jong Il's gift." But Jenkins had resolved instead to turn himself in to the U.S. military, against the urging of his North Korean contacts and Dresnok (the two Americans had met up again in Pyongyang). "They told me, 'If you go, you are going to jail for life,' but I didn't care," Jenkins says. "I thought, If I go to jail, I go to jail. As long as I get my daughters out."

Three days before he left, Jenkins saw Dresnok one final time. Dresnok, Jenkins sensed, knew his friend was leaving for good, although the two didn't dare discuss it. "During the time my wife was gone, Dresnok would come over every day. We would have coffee and talk. He is all by himself now."

As bleak as Jenkins knew North Korea to be, it was the only home his daughters had known, and he had to handle their exit gingerly. He told his younger daughter Brinda that they were leaving for good, but he felt he couldn't tell Mika. "Mika didn't want to leave. They had her thinking that Americans would kill you just as soon as look at you. They educate all Koreans to believe that," says Jenkins. "Brinda also learned that, but she also believed what I said too, though I couldn't ever talk much about what I thought about North Korea. I was too scared to." When Mika arrived in Indonesia, she panicked, Jenkins recalls, saying, "'Back in North Korea, they are all going to call me a traitor.'" Jenkins told her, "America calls me a traitor. If people knew everything, they might think different."

While Jenkins was in Jakarta, Japanese officials became worried about complications from prostate surgery he had had in North Korea, and on July 18 he was flown to Tokyo. While in a hospital there, Jenkins announced that when he was well, he would turn himself in to the U.S. Army. On Sept. 11, Jenkins presented himself at the gates of Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base about an hour's drive from Tokyo. He approached Lieut. Colonel Paul Nigara, provost marshal of the U.S. Army Japan, briskly saluted and said, "Sir, I'm Sergeant Jenkins, and I'm reporting." The longest-missing deserter ever to return to the U.S. Army, he was initially charged with one count of desertion, one of aiding the enemy, two of soliciting others to desert and four charges of encouraging disloyalty (charges that could have carried the death penalty).

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4