REDEEMED:After serving time for desertion from the U.S. Army, Jenkins is now free
In 1965, U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins deserted his post in South Korea and fled to the communist North?a move he now calls "the stupidest thing I have ever done." He spent nearly four decades inside the Hermit Kingdom, as a lingering mystery of the cold war.
In July, Pyongyang finally let Jenkins leave. He turned himself in to the U.S. Army in Japan and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. He left prison two weeks ago. In this special Time report, Jenkins, who has seen things in secretive North Korea that only a few Westerners have experienced, tells his story. It's a tale of despair and regret, redemption and love.
Sergeant Ccharles Robert Jenkins arrived at South Korea's Camp Clinch in 1964. Although he had already served in the U.S. 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, North Carolina, 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 3-m-high fence. A North Korean soldier spotted him and 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.