Life in North Korea Harsh for Deserters
Fri Nov 5, 1:46 PM ET
By ERIC TALMADGE, Associated Press Writer
TOKYO - Far from finding a communist paradise, four American soldiers suspected of deserting to North Korea in the 1960s were forced to live together in a tiny house under constant surveillance, to scrounge for food and to study the works of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung for up to 16 hours a day.
Two died before ever again seeing the outside world.
Shedding new light on a bizarre Cold War tale, former U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Jenkins told a court-martial this week that he and the others lived for years as a tightly knit — if not always harmonious — group honed by hardship, poverty and frequent beatings.
Jenkins surrendered to U.S. military authorities in September after nearly 40 years in the secretive Stalinist state. He was convicted of desertion and aiding the enemy and began serving a 30-day sentence on Wednesday.
His confession detailed decades of virtual imprisonment for himself and the others: Pvt. Larry A. Abshier of Urbana, Ill., who the military says went missing in 1962 at age 19; Cpl. Jerry W. Parrish of Morganfield, Ky., who is accused of deserting in 1963 at age 19; and James Dresnock of Richmond, Va., a private when he crossed into North Korea in 1962.
"Of the three other Americans who lived in North Korea with me, only Dresnock and I are left," Jenkins said in a dramatic statement read to the court by his military lawyer. A copy of the unsworn statement and another document outlining the reasons for his desertion were obtained by The Associated Press.
Jenkins, a native of Rich Square, N.C., said Parrish died in 1996 of an abdominal infection. Abshier died of a heart attack in 1983. Dresnock still lives in the North.
From shortly after he crossed into North Korea in 1965 until 1972, Jenkins said, he lived in a house with the other three men. He did not say why the others left their units.
Jenkins, however, confessed that he deserted on Jan. 5, 1965, because he was afraid of being shot patrolling the Demilitarized Zone and of being sent to Vietnam. Jenkins, now a frail 64-year-old, said he had intended to somehow return to the United States.
He soon realized North Korea wasn't going to let him go.
"For many years we lived in a one-room house that we all shared," he said in the statement. "We slept on the floor, there was most often no electricity, and we had no running water. We were allowed to bathe once a month, though in the summer we bathed more often in the river."
Jenkins said their "job" was to study — in Korean — the philosophy of Kim Il Sung, which they did for 10 hours a day. He said he and the other Americans called it "the study of class struggle from the perspective of a crazy man."
"If we didn't memorize enough, or were not able to recite portions of our studies on demand, we were then forced to study 16 hours a day on Sunday, which was our only day of rest," he said.
"I longed to leave that place every day."
Jenkins said he and the others tried to escape by seeking asylum in the Soviet Embassy in 1966. Guards allowed them in, assuming they were Russian.
"Of course, when they found out who we were, they sent us out of the embassy, and none of us figured out why we weren't shot by the North Koreans later on," he said. "From then on, any time we did anything real stupid, we did it together, 'cause we figured they wouldn't want to kill all the Americans at one time."
Despite being under the constant watch of a minder, or "political leader," the four organized other little rebellions that could have cost them their lives.
"During the first 10 years or so, our political leader lived directly in our home," Jenkins said. "Once, when he was gone, we snuck up into the attic to see if we could scrounge some old electrical insulators. I was secretly building a fishing net to increase our food supply, and I needed the insulators as weights." In the attic, he said, "We found microphones everywhere, and realized that the leader was taping everything we said between us."
Parrish, he said, decided to bury the microphones in the backyard.
"Parrish told the leader he would give the microphones back if the leader would take him to Pyongyang to buy a bottle of wine," Jenkins said. "The leader could have had us all shot for this, but he was too worried that he would be in trouble himself for allowing us to climb into the attic. Parrish got the wine, though he did not share it."
By 1980, the three were allowed to live in houses of their own.
That year, Jenkins married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese who had been abducted by North Korean spies in 1978. Soga was allowed to return to Japan two years ago; Jenkins and their two North Korea-born daughters joined her in July.
Though Soga testified that Jenkins was a devoted father, she said their lives were hard.
"In the winter, we wore all the clothes we had just to stay warm," she said in testimony Wednesday. "There were times our daughters went to bed hungry."
Jenkins said he kept in contact with the other Americans.
"Dresnock and myself had been given a small two-room house each, and our homes were relatively close to each other," he said. "Parrish and Abshier were moved miles away, and their homes were in close proximity as well."
He said he and Dresnock were forbidden from communicating with Parrish and Abshier but eventually visited each other, "though we could have been punished severely."
"In the end, I think we quietly hoped we would get caught and it would be done with," he said.
Jenkins said the North Koreans used Dresnock as an enforcer.
"The North Korean army often used Dresnock to beat the other three of us when we did wrong, though there were plenty of North Korean soldiers who put us down as well," he said. "I cannot remember how many times I was physically beaten during those times for this and that. I try not to think about that anymore, and usually I don't."
He said he was close to Abshier.
"Of us all, he was the simplest, the most scared, and my closest friend. I looked over him like a big brother," Jenkins said. "A little piece of me died that day when he left us."
U.S. Deserter Jenkins Gets Dishonorable Discharge
Wed Nov 3, 4:21 AM ET
By Elaine Lies and George Nishiyama
CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier who deserted to North Korea four decades ago was on Wednesday given 30 days confinement and a dishonorable discharge, after confessing he had been scared and wanted to leave the army.
The sentencing of Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins was the climax to one of the Cold War's strangest dramas and resolves a diplomatic headache for the United States and its close ally, Japan, which had sought leniency out of sympathy for his Japanese wife. They married after she was abducted to North Korea in 1978.
Jenkins, 64, frail and dressed in army uniform, pleaded guilty at the court martial held at the U.S. army's Camp Zama base near Tokyo to deserting to North Korea in 1965, and to aiding the enemy.
"I no longer wanted to be in the military," Jenkins said, as his wife, Hitomi Soga, and two North Korean-born daughters watched solemnly.
He denied encouraging disloyalty and soliciting other service members to desert and those charges were dropped.
A 24-year-old army sergeant from tiny Rich Square in North Carolina, Jenkins disappeared one night in January 1965 while on patrol near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
Jenkins, often overcome with emotion, told the court he had deserted to avoid hazardous duty in South Korea and escape combat in Vietnam.
"It was Christmas time, it was also cold and dark. I started to drink alcohol. I never had drunk so much alcohol," he said, choking back sobs.
He said he drank 10 beers before taking his men on patrol, where he told them to wait while he checked the road below. Using a new compass as his guide, he walked toward North Korea, holding a rifle with white T-shirt tied around it.
Jenkins said he had planned to go to Russia and turn himself in to the U.S. embassy there. "I knew 100 percent what I was doing, but I didn't know the consequences behind it," he said. "I didn't know that North Korea was going to keep me."
The sentence, which was in line with a pre-trial agreement, will allow Jenkins to resume private life with his wife after his brief confinement.
He was to begin his confinement in a stark isolation cell at a U.S. naval base south of Tokyo later on Wednesday, but military officials said the period of confinement could be suspended or reduced.
Happy MarriageJenkins, who stood impassive while the sentence was read, also forfeits his pay and allowances and his status will be reduced to the lowest army rank.
President Bush had been said to be reluctant to give Jenkins special treatment while U.S. troops are fighting in Iraq, and ahead of the U.S. presidential election.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, however, has spent political capital by backing the U.S.-led war in Iraq and sending troops there on a risky reconstruction mission.
Jenkins had been expected to plead guilty to some charges and offer to tell what he knew about the secretive state in return for a punishment less than the maximum of life in prison.
Recalling when he first met Soga, Jenkins said: "She was 20 years younger than me and no one thought that she could love me.
"Our mutual hate for North Korea brought us together and kept us together for 24 years," he sobbed. "Marriage to my wife brought me happiness."
Fear for the safety of his family and for himself made it impossible to refuse demands to teach English to North Korean soldiers, said Jenkins, who never attended high school. He also played an evil U.S. spy in a North Korean propaganda film.
"You don't say no to North Korea. You say one thing bad about Kim Il-sung and you dig your own hole, because you're gone," Jenkins said, citing the late leader of the secretive state.
Sympathy runs high in Japan for Soga, a shy but poised woman who was allowed to return to Japan two years ago along with four other Japanese abducted to North Korea.
Soga had to leave behind Jenkins and their two North Korean-born daughters -- Mika, 21, and 19-year-old Brinda.
The family was reunited in Indonesia before Jenkins was brought to Tokyo for medical treatment in July. He gave himself up in September and returned to active duty.
Soga has said she wants her family to live in her sleepy, rural home town of Mano on Sado Island in northern Japan.
Far Eastern Economic REVIEW www.FEER.com
Four Decades in North Korea
One cold night in 1965, Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins disappeared from a patrol in South Korea. Forty years later he has resurfaced. In his first interview since leaving North Korea, he tells the REVIEW his story
By Jeremy Kirk/TOKYO
Issue cover-dated 09 Sep 2004
AFTER SURVIVING FOR nearly four decades in North Korea and spending a month in a Tokyo hospital room, United States Army Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins wants closure. And to get it, he's ready to tell his story.
In Jenkins' first interview since taking flight from the North Korean regime in July, the alleged defector tells the REVIEW why he intends to turn himself over to the U.S. Army even though he expects to face a court martial. Jenkins reveals that he sought asylum at the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang in 1966, endured repeated beatings at the hands of another alleged American defector, and was pressured by North Korean authorities to reject a personal invitation by the Japanese prime minister to leave the country with him. And he describes how his difficult life in North Korea was lifted from misery by a love affair with a Japanese nurse who shared his hatred of the communist regime and eventually helped him and their two daughters escape.
"When I got on the airplane in Indonesia coming to Japan," Jenkins says, speaking in a colloquial English that reflects his seventh-grade North Carolina education, "my intentions was to turn myself in to the military, for the simple reason I would like to put my daughters with their mother, one thing. Another thing: I'd like to clear my conscience."
Rising from his hospital bed at the Tokyo Women's Medical University, Jenkins greets his visitor with a deferential Korean handshake, briefly makes eye contact and immediately looks away. A greying 64-year-old with a heavily creased face, Jenkins is still restricted in what he says: On the advice of his military lawyer, he withholds the circumstances of his alleged desertion to North Korea and many of the details of his life there--information that he intends to offer to the Americans in return for their leniency.
On September 1, Jenkins released a statement to the press saying he would voluntarily report to a U.S. Army base in Japan and "face the allegations that have been charged against me." The U.S. charges Jenkins with desertion, aiding the enemy, soliciting others to desert and encouraging disloyalty. In a document seen by the REVIEW that was initially intended to argue his case for an other-than-honourable discharge, Jenkins acknowledges that he is guilty of at least one of the four charges against him or of a lesser included offence, without specifying precisely which offence. The U.S. military informally rejected Jenkins' discharge request.
The U.S., not wishing to send the wrong message to its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, has publicly vowed to prosecute Jenkins. But privately the matter is much more delicate. Jenkins presents a starkly different picture than that of a deserter who enjoyed living in North Korea and supported the regime by acting in propaganda movies. It's of a man--and family--who scraped by while North Korean officials watched their every move.
As he talks, Jenkins stares at the floor, absorbed in his past, frequently on the verge of tears. His voice cracks and wavers when he speaks of his wife and children. A three-pack-a-day smoker who suffers heart problems and anxiety attacks, Jenkins speaks slowly, in a hoarse North Carolina drawl, deliberately choosing each word as he lucidly recalls dates and events from decades ago.
Jenkins arrived in North Korea already a service veteran. He dropped out of school in North Carolina in the seventh grade, not long after the death of his father, and in 1955, at 15, he entered the National Guard. After an honourable discharge in April 1958, he enlisted in the regular army. By August 1960 he had begun a 13-month tour in South Korea, during which he was promoted to sergeant; he returned for a second tour in September 1964. Then, on a bone-chilling night early the following January, on patrol along the Demilitarized Zone, the 24-year-old sergeant with an unblemished nine-year service record vanished. The U.S. government considers him a deserter, saying that he left behind letters stating his intention to defect; members of his family in the U.S. have said they are convinced that he was captured by the communist state.
From 1965 to 1972, on the other side of the DMZ, Jenkins shared a harsh life with three other alleged U.S. Army defectors: Pfc. James Joseph Dresnok, Pvt. Larry Allen Abshier and Cpl. Jerry Wayne Parrish. "At first the four of us lived in one house, one room, very small, no beds--we had to sleep on the floor," Jenkins says. "There was no running water. We had to carry water approximately 200 metres up the hill. And the water was river water."
The North Koreans played the Americans against each other, Jenkins says. "If I didn't listen to the North Korean government, they would tie me up, call Dresnok in to beat me. Dresnok really enjoyed it."
The diminutive Jenkins, about 1.65 metres tall, describes Dresnok as "a beater, 196 centimetres tall, weighed 128 kilograms. He's big. He likes to beat someone. And because I was a sergeant he took it out on me. I had no other trouble with no one as far as Abshier and Parrish, but Dresnok, yes." Abshier died of a heart attack in 1983 and Parrish died of a massive internal infection in 1997, according to Jenkins' discharge request. Dresnok is still living in North Korea.
An August 25 psychiatric report by Tokyo doctors, seen by the REVIEW, says Jenkins suffers from a panic disorder as a result of his treatment. "He had been suspected for espionage and continuously censored. During the first several years, he was forced to live together with three American refugees so as to mutually criticize their capitalistic ideology with physical punishment such as beating on face," the report says.
Jenkins would have had particular trouble erasing his past: He bears a tattoo of crossed rifles--the branch insignia of the infantry--on his left forearm. When he got the tattoo as a teenager in the National Guard, the letters "U.S." were inscribed underneath; North Koreans cut the letters away.
According to Jenkins' discharge request, which was written on his behalf by his military attorney, Capt. James D. Culp, Jenkins and the three other men tried to escape. "In 1966, Sgt. Jenkins even risked his life to leave North Korea by going to the Russian embassy and requesting asylum. Obviously, the Russian government denied the request."
During the 1960s, according to another revealing passage in the discharge request, Culp writes that contrary to rumours "Sgt. Jenkins had no interaction of any kind with any American sailor taken captive during the USS Pueblo incident." The January 1968 incident began when the North Koreans seized a U.S. Navy spy ship off the country's coast near Wonsan. One crew member was killed, while 82 others were beaten and threatened with death before being released 11 months later, after an embarrassing apology by the U.S.
Meanwhile, between 1965 and 1980, Jenkins says he was beaten by Dresnok at least 30 times. Then, in 1980, Jenkins met Hitomi Soga, and his life changed. "Approximately 10 o'clock at night she came to my house," he says in the interview. "At that time she was 21 years old. I was 40 years old. Anyway, she came to my house, the Korean government told me to teach her English so they told me to take a few days rest so that we could get very well acquainted, so after about 15 days I started teaching her English."
Soga had been abducted in 1978 by North Korean agents in Japan, and brought to North Korea. "They wanted a schoolteacher to teach the Korean children Japanese language, Japanese customs in order to turn them into espionage agents," says Jenkins. But the kidnappers made a mistake, he says. "The North Korean government did not have any use for my wife because she was not a school teacher, she was a nurse. Therefore they had nowhere really to put her, so if she's with me they'd know where she's at."
When Soga told Jenkins one week after they met that she had been kidnapped, Jenkins says he couldn't believe it. "I'd been in North Korea at that time approximately 15 years and I never heard of anyone being kidnapped. I never heard anything about any civilian being taken to North Korea by force. I learned that my wife, she didn't like the Koreans for it. I also learned that when my wife was taken, the same night her mother disappeared. Her mother never been heard from again. I felt very, very sorry for her. And she learned that I had been in North Korea for 15 years. She knew that I also did not want to be in North Korea so me and her became much closer than before. So it wasn't long after that I asked her to marry me. She said she must think about it a little bit. Her and I got much, much closer and in the end she said she would marry me. So I notified the Korean government, and they agreed. They didn't care."
Jenkins says "there was no one in the village I lived in that thought that she would ever marry me" because of their age difference. "But after meeting her 38 days later we were married. My wife and I became very close as far as love because she hated the [North] Korean government as well as I, so her and I joined hands in marriage on August 8, 1980. From that time on we lived very, very happy."
The couple's first daughter was born three years later. "I named her Roberta because my name is Robert. My wife I told her to give her a second name. She gave her the name Mika and of course my name is Jenkins. Mika means in Japanese 'beautiful'." Their second daughter was born in 1985: "We named her Brinda Carol Jenkins. That's B-R-I-N-D-A. The reason, my half sister in America was named Brinda Carol."
While Jenkins was building a family, to the outside world his existence and that of other Americans in North Korea was slipping into legend. Jenkins appeared in a North Korean anti-U.S. propaganda film in the 1980s, but by the 1990s the notion that there were still American soldiers living in Pyongyang was mostly a rumour. It was not until Jenkins resurfaced in 2002 with his teenage daughters that his presence was confirmed.
Koizumi's OfferThat year, in a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il agreed to allow a number of Japanese who had been abducted by North Korea to return home. The issue of abductees had long been an emotional issue for the Japanese public and a major sticking point in relations between the two countries.
Jenkins' wife, Hitomi Soga, went back to Japan that October, leaving her husband and their two daughters behind and bringing international attention to the family. Soga soon became a national heroine in Japan, trailed by the media. And Jenkins showed his face as well, giving a rare interview to a Japanese magazine in North Korea. He was quoted as saying that he had not known until that year that Soga was an abductee; he was also quoted as praising Kim Jong Il.
Now that he's left the country, Jenkins no longer disguises his bitterness at the North Korean regime. His legal defence is based in part on the notion that he learned to feign fealty to a regime he despised to avoid death and keep his family together.
Following Soga's release, the North Korean government sought to convince her to return to her husband and daughters, while others tried to find a way to reunite the family in another country. In May 2004, Koizumi travelled to North Korea a second time. On this visit he won the release of the children of Japanese abductees, and tried personally to persuade Jenkins to come to Japan.
Jenkins says he was told he had 10 minutes with Koizumi, but the meeting lasted nearly an hour. "At that time, my wife had been in Japan for 21 months," he says. "Prime Minister Koizumi had a document signed by Kim Jong Il. He got it that morning." The document said that Jenkins and his daughters could leave with Koizumi.
"But before Prime Minster Koizumi came that day," says Jenkins, "four people came and talked with me what would happen to me if I left North Korea. One was the vice-minister for foreign affairs. The other three I don't know exactly who they were. They come and give me a lecture on not to go to Japan. And I knew if I left that day I would never get to the airport."
Jenkins says he also knew the room he was in with Koizumi and his delegation was bugged. "So I told Prime Minister Koizumi I could not leave North Korea," Jenkins says. "He said, 'North Korea will not let [Hitomi] leave if she comes back and she does not wish to come back to North Korea.' He said, 'Today I would like to take you and your daughters with me to Japan'."
Jenkins suggests that he feared what would happen if he accepted the invitation. "I knew that if I left the guest house that we met Prime Minister Koizumi in, instead of going right, to the airport, they'd had went to the left, and I would have went right back to the area I lived in before, and it may have been the end of my life," Jenkins says, his voice cracking.
Jenkins says he was told later that day that Kim Jong Il was very pleased that he did not go to Japan with his daughters. The North Koreans then told Jenkins they would allow him to travel to a third country to meet his wife and bring her back to North Korea.
"North Korea said, 'Let's go to China.' I agreed," says Jenkins. "But my wife would not. She said no." Soga, determined not to return, feared that China was too close to North Korea. Instead, a meeting was arranged for July in Jakarta.
"The reason I agreed to go to Indonesia because at one time it was a socialist country for one year--that was under Sukarno," says Jenkins. "The purpose of going to Indonesia was to bring my wife back to North Korea. And they [North Korean officials] thought if I went with my two daughters, that she would follow me. But she would not do so and I had no intentions of going back to North Korea."
That leaves him to face his next challenge: a possible court martial. His lawyer, Culp, says Jenkins can offer details about the use of foreign nationals in the North Korean spy programme. The request for a discharge asserts that Jenkins can confirm that "a number of Americans were used, most often unwillingly, by North Korea to arm spies with English-speaking skills so they could target American interests in South Korea and beyond."
Culp writes, "The value of this intelligence about the lives and fates of the fellow Americans who lived for decades in North Korea is immeasurable."
The document suggests that Jenkins can help American intelligence identify possible North Korean spies: "At least three other Americans who are suspected of deserting to North Korea were allowed to marry East European and/or Middle Eastern women who had been brought to and held in North Korea against their will. In two of the cases, the Americans had multiple children who are now young adults who appear to be American or European themselves." Jenkins possesses what he says is an April 2004 photograph, seen by the REVIEW, of an ageing Pfc. Dresnok with 19-year-old Brinda and five other non-Korean looking people.
Jenkins has been at the Tokyo hospital since arriving in Japan. In addition to his chronic health problems, he is recovering from prostate surgery in April in North Korea that left him with an infected post-operative wound. Koizumi, a supporter of Washington in the war in Iraq, has raised Jenkins' case with President George W. Bush, but U.S. officials insist that the two governments have not negotiated over the outcome of the continuing legal process. Jenkins expresses appreciation to the Japanese government, who made his wife's freedom possible, and eventually took in him and his daughters. "It was not my intention whatsoever for the Japanese government to try to get me out of trouble," Jenkins says. "And I really appreciate the Japanese government for all they have done for me."
What he wants now is an end to a nearly four-decade odyssey as he prepares to turn himself over to the Americans. He has no interest in getting a civilian attorney. "The American army has supplied, assigned a very capable man to me, to help me, bring me to military justice. I don't think I need no civilians. All I want to do is clear myself with the American army."