THE RELUCTANT COMMUNIST by Charles Robert Jenkins


My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
Email this review


A riveting account of what happened to a U.S. sergeant after he walked across the DMZ and defected to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1965.

With the assistance of Frederick, Time magazine’s former Tokyo bureau chief, Jenkins describes himself on the day he abandoned the men under his command as a young, scared, slightly drunk 24-year-old who basically wanted to go AWOL and get out of the army. He sobered up during a 40-year Sartrean odyssey in the most Orwellian of nations. Jenkins provides a rare look inside a country where up is down and down is up, where citizens are regularly forced to proclaim their loyalty to the “Dear Leader,” where food, heat and logic are hard to come by. He managed to make a go of it, gamely keeping the “Organization” (his word for the Communist Party) at bay and scrounging together a living in a dirt-poor nation. In 1980 he met and quickly married Hitomi Soga, a young Japanese woman kidnapped by the North Korean security services as part of a program to indoctrinate future spies. In 2002, when North Korea was attempting rapprochement with Japan, Hitomi was allowed to visit her homeland; she stayed and ultimately arranged for Jenkins and their two daughters to join her in 2004. He surrendered to U.S. military authorities and received a 30-day sentence and dishonorable discharge for desertion and aiding the enemy. This slender book is short on historical context, although Frederick’s long introduction does a decent job of setting up the story and giving some frame to Jenkins’s life. The journalist’s description of Jenkins’s traumatized mental state during their first interview on a U.S. base in Tokyo in 2004 (mere hours after he got out of the brig) casts some doubt over this tale, but it’s still well worth reading.

Short on history and ideas, but worth it for the rare view inside the North Korean moonscape.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-520-25333-9
Page count: 230pp
Publisher: Univ. of California
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2008