Thursday, October 6, 2011

A bad decision gets a young man lost to North Korea for most of his life

There are some decisions that set the course of your life forever.  Picking a major in college.  Getting married.  Quitting a job to follow your dream.

Then there are the less well thought out life changers.  Dropping out of college to gold mine in World of Warcraft.  That one-night stand.  A drunk-dial to your (now former) boss.

Charles Robert Jenkins' poorly thought out decision probably trumps all of those.  Stationed in South Korea during the end of the US' involvement with the Korean war, Jenkins hears that his unit might soon be transferred to the war now heating up in Vietnam.

Jenkins has always been the type to take the easy way out.  In fact, he enlisted in the army because his father told him that he either had to get a job or join the military, and the military seemed easier.

Not liking the stories that he was hearing coming out of Vietnam, he comes up with a plan to get out of being transferred.  He's heard that men who have defected to the USSR regularly get sent home in prisoner exchanges.  He might spend a few years in Leavenworth, but that would be easier than the hell going on in Vietnam.  So, one particularly drunken night, he walks across the DMZ and turns himself in.

Unfortunately, North Korea is a completely different animal that the USSR.  Instead of seeing Jenkins' capture as a chance to get back some of their own men, they saw a golden opportunity to get information and train their spy program.  So there Jenkins stayed.

For four decades.

So Jenkins hardly got the easy out he was hoping for.  Although, in the world that is North Korea, he probably had it easier than many others.  He never quite starved to death, for one.  While the beatings were at times plentiful, from both the North Koreans as well as other American prisoners, he always recovered from them.  He even found something of a love match with a prisoner kidnapped from Japan to work with the spy program as well.  All in all, it could have turned out much worse for him.

Along the way, we get to see some of the truly bizarre customs and beliefs that are programmed into the lives of everyday North Koreans.  The government does such a complete job of blacking out the media that the average citizen simply has no idea how different the world outside is.  And those who do know what happens to them and their families if they show the slightest signs of dissent.

Even as you shake your head at the sheer idiocy of defecting to North Korea, to which Jenkins fully admits, there are moments to cheer for him as the underdog of the story.  When he's assigned to teach English classes to future spies, he purposefully gives them the wrong words, out of a combination of amusement and spite.  You can't help but cringe along with him when he's assigned a 'housekeeper' who lays down the law about how the house is going to be run.  And you cheer at the end when he gets to teach his daughters about how the rest of the world lives.

The writing's simple, and it's a very quick read.  It gives a unique and intriguing look into one of the most insular countries in the world, which would be hard to get anywhere else.

Highs:  The writing's brutally honest in its self-reflection, which keeps the story from turning into a "look how hard my life is" mess

Lows:  Parts of the narrative could have been cleaned up better by the editor of co-writer

Verdict:  Material you won't get anywhere else, and short enough not to be boring

Further Reading:  North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter, Pyongyang

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