Tuesday, November 27, 2012 0 comments

KBS World Radio

There's some great Korean studies-related discussions over at KBS World's website.



bonus: On vimeo, there's a pretty interesting series by user "semipermanent" called "The Expat Life" which chronicles foreigners in Korea that do other things besides teach English. Not bad at all.
Monday, September 17, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: From Pusan to Panmunjom

Title: From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General
Author: Paik Sun Yup
ebook: 271 pages
Publisher: Potomac Books Inc. (October 1999)
ISBN-10: 1574887432
ISBN-13: 978-1574887433




An immensely important contribution to Korean War discussions, From Pusan to Panmujom chronicles the Korean War from instigation to armistice from the viewpoint of arguably the most influential and well-respected ROK Army officer ever, former General Paik Sun Yup. His involvement permeated virtually every major battle and decision that occurred on the battlefield and thus, innately qualifies him to narrate the vastly overlooked Korean perspective of the war. From frantically forming a counterattack to repel the invading North Korean forces, holding the line at the Pusan Perimeter, re-establishing tactical dominance back near the 38th parallel and beyond to capture Pyongyang, to domestic objectives such as quelling the communist guerrilla force near Mt. Jiri and representing the armed forces at the armistice talks, General Paik was the quintessential key player in every major event during the Korean War. His story is begging to be heard.

As Paik concedes, just prior to the war The ROK Army was an overwhelmingly under-equipped militia at best. It was only army in name. None of the heavy armor, long-range firepower, or logistical support existed yet and thus, was reduced to being compared to the U.S. Army as nothing more than a ragtag group of underpaid and undertrained volunteers and forced draftees. While this might be partially correct, the later joint U.S. Army's contribution of heavy armor and superior howitzers combined with the ROK's infantry proved to be an effective fighting force despite relatively little previous experience. Paik maintains that his men's determination to unify the country and staunch anti-communism stance steeled them into hardened soldiers willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country. Paik proudly writes highly of his men; so much so that it's difficult to imagine how he must have dealt with the loses inflicted by the numerous Chinese human wave offenses that inundated his forces.

Not only was Paik the first Korean to reach the prestigious rank of Four-Star General, he was also amazingly young; few other 33-year-olds could claim his level of success. Yet, Paik comes off as a humble working-man's soldier; a man devoted to the service of his country but who could also see the internationally unfolding big picture. Even as he pens this memoir decades later, he attributes successes to those around him and claims responsibility for failures. Men of Paik's caliber are indeed rare. 

Paik's memoir affects me on a few personal levels. As a former enlisted member of the U.S. armed forces, I can understand the clear reasons why he was quickly promoted; Paik appears to have been an outstanding commanding officer at a time when they were likely few and far between. The history nerd in me appreciates Paik's ability to give grand scheme analyses when deconstructing individual battles; he appropriately expounds on certain contextual details to help color the circumstances that he and his men faced. His politically sensitive language, too, is foretelling of his second career in diplomacy. Furthermore, he often goes beyond dryly stating who did what; Paik briefs the reader of the men around him who would later rise to future successes inside and outside of the military. For all of Paik's militaristic achievements, he also maintains a certain degree of literary professionalism that hovers around frankness and cordiality. For such a heavy topic, it's really a great read.

This is a well-constructed memoir, no doubt about it. I have very few reservations about recommending it. If only the reader does a short brush-up on basic military hierarchy and unit strength comparison (corps, battalion, company, etc) the book then becomes highly appreciable by non-military and former military alike. Like many others who have read this book, I come away feeling not only more informed and also grateful to Paik for writing down his astonishing experiences. If you're interested in Korea or the Korean War, you will surely appreciate this organically Korean side of the story.

Friday, August 24, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: The Korean Church Under Japanese Colonialism


Title: The Korean Church Under Japanese Colonialism
Author: Choi Jai-keun
Softcover: 262 pages
Publisher: Jimoondang (August 31, 2007)
ISBN-10: 8988095235
ISBN-13: 9788988095232




A follow-up to 2006's The Origin of the Roman Catholic Church in Korea, Choi Jai-keun briefly walks the reader through the Korean Protestant church's jarring beginnings from nationalistic rebellion against Japanese colonial rule to ubiquitous religious dominance. The author selectively cites from both Western and Korean sources to tell a history worth sharing. However, it may not be the story you're expecting.

The church's origins are multifaceted and its growth was directly related to a divisive national identity crisis that occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Choi narrates this transition somewhat free from subjective commentary other than to occasionally comment on how inept the Korean monarchy had become just prior to colonization and how Christian conviction proved steadfast. The progression from early foreign missionary influence to domestic governance is steady, however, the book loses steam when it reaches the 1910s. A fair amount of the first half of the book is spent discussing and dissecting the 105 Man Incident of 1910-1912. It picks back up with the controversy surrounding Christians participating in state-mandated Shinto rituals. Unfortunately, those two are the only main topics to be found here.

Regarding the book's overall presentation, one could hope for a more finished product. The layout isn't anything to look at; apart from a bland design that feels stiff and visually unappealing, there's no illustrations or pictures of any kind. Instead, the author needlessly numerates points of interest that could have been better expressed in well-developed paragraphs. Furthermore, despite looking and feeling like a master's thesis, frequent minor editing mistakes run rampant and unchecked. Although they generally don't detract from the intended meaning, they certainly do make the book feel entirely too unpolished and not yet fit for publishing.

In unusual academic fashion, there's a dearth of not only primary sources like official church histories but also modern interpretations; most of Choi's sources are from the 1960s. Disappointing, too, is that only a negligible amount is written about pioneering missionaries such as Horace N. Allen, Henry Appenzeller, Horace G. Underwood and the like. If the title of the book had instead been lengthily named "The Korean Conspiracy Case and Subsequent Rebellion Against Obligatory Shinto Rituals" perhaps the reader would be better prepared for the secluded path that Choi takes.

That's what disappoints the most about this book. It feels like a concealed path that's too narrow in scope and not quite authoritative enough to be mandatory reading for a college course nor entertaining enough to be a celebrated history book to be passed around. It reads like a rough draft to something more important; a review copy for a larger work that begs for native English-speaking editing and a good publisher's sense of flair. The contents speak of good history worthy of discussion. However, you might want to read about them elsewhere. It's not a bad book, but not exactly exhilarating nor polished enough to recommend.

- - -

I was expecting something more lucid, I suppose. I can say, at least, that I learned more about the 105 Man Incident (105인 사건).

This event, also known as the Korean Conspiracy Case, was the culmination of the recently fully instated Japanese colonial government's aim of their distrust of natively Korean organizations. By this time, all officially registered politically-orientated groups had been legally abolished. However, perhaps by either oversight or underestimation, the small but growing number of Christian churches were still allowed to operate making them breeding grounds not only for quiet, nonviolent religious expression but also for underground nationalistic camaraderie. As the colonial government was still reeling from the 1909 assassination of the first Resident-General of Korea Itō Hirobumi, the incumbent Resident-General, Terauchi Masatake, took no chances. Under the pretense of a mass assassination plot, the gendarmerie rounded up around 700 Koreans; among these, a few were killed, many were tortured, and most made false confessions under duress. All told, 105 men were incarcerated after a farcical trial. This event marked a turning point in religious and national rebellion. Hence, for many Koreans of the time, association with Christianity became synonymous with association with nationalism.



Sunday, August 12, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: Park Chung-Hee: From Poverty to Power

Title: Park Chung-Hee: From Poverty to Power
Author: Chong-sik Lee
eBook: 327 pages
Publisher: The KHU Press (March 29, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0615560288
ISBN-13: 978-0615560281


Former ROK army general and self-appointed "democratic" president Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) is still quite possibly the most controversial political figure in Korean history. Interpreting his legacy remains a contestable notion of whether infrastructural matters such as economic security and public services take precedence over domestic matters like citizen rights and public programs. Appropriately aimed at an English-speaking audience outside of Korea, the author writes in hopes for the foreign reader to gain a better understanding of Park's legacy and why it still matters. This thorough biography of Park's early life sets the stage for discussions about not only Park but his first daughter, conservative assemblywoman and presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye, as her father's legacy is inexorably tied to hers. Unsurprisingly, the elder Park has one of the most turbulent, fascinating background stories to support his questionable, yet dynamic legacy.

One couldn't ask for a more qualified author, either. Professor Lee's multilingual confidence in writing makes you wonder whether if English is his first language (which it isn't). Lee's narrative is concise and informative. Unfortunately, his ability is underutilized;  Lee takes the reader on somewhat of a glossed tour of the late president's life, leaving out key events such as a play-by-play breakdown of the 1961 military coup, the October Yushin reforms of 1972, a failed assassination attempt that instead took his wife's life in 1974 and even his own eventual assassination on October 26, 1979. How these crucial events could be left out in a biography of the man is beyond me. Why include an entire chapter on Park's elementary school performance but leave out him stepping down from the military junta and entering into the realm of debatably democratic politics? Surely, it's not asking too much for the author to have added just a few more chapters to continue the story that he spent so much time and effort building up.

However, it can be said with confidence that Lee's research is meticulous and relatively objective; which is to say that he draws from not only liberal but also conservative sources as well as sources based on languages other than Korean. Make no mistake that the author is ready to defend his position and has solid ground to do so; each chapter ends with more than enough footnotes loaded with interesting comments and context. Lee's expertise is well-suited for this type of internationally spanning biography.

Without a doubt, this book had the potential to be the authoritative English-language reference on one of Korea's most influential men to date. However, due to the book's abrupt end while leading up to the 1961 coup, it regrettably removes this title from a wide-reaching non-Korean audience and instead places it in obscurity for history nerds like me to rip apart. Much like one of the author's previous works Syngman Rhee the Prison Years of a Young Radical, this book, too, begs more from the author's clearly capable hands. After such a brilliant build up in the first and second acts, for Professor Lee to flat out leave out the most memorable and talked about moments of Park Chung-hee's life really makes this book hard to recommend.


Thursday, July 26, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm: A Historical Novel


Title: A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm: A Historical Novel
Author: Donald Southerton
eBook: 80 pages
Publisher: iUniverse (November 16, 2006)
ISBN-100595420974
ISBN-13978-0595420971




A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm is the first in a trilogy of short historical fiction set in late nineteenth century Korea. The source material is based on and extrapolated from relevant historical evidence involving early American entrepreneurs in Korea. The fictional protagonist, Josh Gillet, hails from a sleepy New England town where he apprentices under his family-owned tinware company. When offered the opportunity to work the ledger at a local trading firm's Yokohama office, the young man signs up in hopes of experiencing adventure in the Far East. After arriving in Japan, further lucrative ventures await him in neighboring Korea. The budding entrepreneur soon discovers more about this mysteriously secluded country only recently opened to Western trade.

The story itself is believable enough and doesn't flirt with being overtly fictitious. It's a safe narrative that doesn't stray too far from expected adventure tale norms. However, the number of formatting and omission errors in the kindle edition is borderline unforgivable. There shouldn't be a reason why this ebook was so poorly edited but, in its current state, it's embarrassing. Based on this ebook, the author, while a longtime respected Koreanist and international business consultant, demonstrates that writing isn't his strong suit. In addition to careless editing and poor formatting, the term "Yankee" is grossly overused almost to the point of being derogatory. There's only so many times the protagonist can be referred to as "a young Yankee" or "the Yankee trader" until it becomes gratuitously offensive, or even worse, lazy writing. Less noticeable but still worth mentioning are the tacked on "sketches" and "wood prints" depicting scenes in the story. These illustrations undeniably are photographs that have been manipulated to look authentic to the period. Although the effort is acknowledged, the end result is transparently artificial and comes across as phony instead of complementing.

This seemingly rushed short story regrettably highlights the importance of hiring a good editor before publishing. It's actually not a bad story, but the faux-authentic illustrations and sloppy editing detracts from an otherwise passably entertaining, if not esoterically, historical novel. Unfortunately, the writing isn't exactly riveting and doesn't have any discernible charm. However, if you're especially interested in this recess of Korean history, then you might enjoy it. Otherwise, it's a short waste of your time.

Thursday, July 12, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: Escape from Camp 14

Title: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Author: Blaine Harden
eBook: 224 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (March 29, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0670023329
ISBN-13: 978-0670023325



Escape from Camp 14 tells the incredible story of a young North Korean man who boldly and narrowly escaped from the total control labor camp where he was born and raised. Shin Dong-hyuk's startlingly account presents the world with an almost unbelievable yet remarkably honest story starting with his heart-wrenching upbringing to his immigration to the States. Former Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden captures a truly unique testimony hammered out from Shin's own 2007 Korean-language memoir and numerous personal interviews with Shin and other refugees. The spark that motivated Shin's desire to leave his torturous, yet only, home might surprise you.

The story begins with Shin's subjection to torture and subsequent witness of the deaths of his mother and older brother. Gruesome, it aptly sets the mood for the unspeakable life he lived behind the walls and electrified fence that lined the camp. It's precisely his blood relation to known defectors during the Korean War that borne him from an arranged reward marriage from a sort of "original sin" stained couple serving in the camp. This coupling, though, precluded Shin from ever being capable of any real redemption. Having born and reared within the confines of the camp and minimally educated at the guard-run school, the ideological brain-washing that the rest of the North Korean population experienced in primary school was curiously absent and instead replaced with sometimes fatal capital punishment and unquestionable subordinated obedience. Because Shin had no outside comparison to his desolate reality, he lived life largely without ever wanting to leave. More sickening, though, was the daily routine of physical beatings, fear-inducing rule enforcement, and constant murder and rape that he witnessed and accepted as commonplace.

When one combines a sheltered mockery of education, a total lack of media (both state-run and international) and an brutally oppressive guard force fostering competition amongst prisoners, this almost powder-keg environment was a proving ground for mindless physical labor and unwavering fear. Shin's revelation of knowledge of a life outside the labor came not from a distant relative, nor a smuggler, radio broadcast or even a religious leader. He heard a rumor of a land were meat was grilled, varied and plentiful. Though he didn't know where this fabled country was, constant hunger drove him to try his luck elsewhere. He is one of the few successful refugees who did not procure escape through a broker. What happened when he gained access outside of the camp is even more extraordinary.

Shin's story is amazing, simply put. The book is incredibly moving and unsentimentally objective. A possible weakness in the narrative is that the book is limited to Shin's own experience whereas Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy charts several diverse stories at once; Shin's experience was not typical of most North Korean refugees. This is hardly a knock at Harden's book as it proudly stands as a brilliant account of the world's most despicable regime's nightmare of a labor camp. Graphic at times but always moving, pay heed to these atrocities by at least hearing him out. Shin's is an original story that deserves your attention. You won't soon forget it.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: Korea: Caught in Time

Title: Korea: Caught in Time
Author: Terry Bennett
Softcover: 144 pages
PublisherGarnet Publishing; Reprint edition (July 26, 2011)
ISBN-10:  1859642217
ISBN-13:  978-1859642214







East Asian photography historian Terry Bennett blesses us with a paperback reprint of his woefully rare 1998 hardcover photo journal Korea: Caught in Time. A satisfying serving of some the earliest surviving prints on Korea, Bennett graciously but briefly narrates some of the stories behind the photos from his impressive private collection. Featuring a concise and informative introduction by former British Ambassador to Korea Martin Uden, this excellent compilation is one of the few of its kind. In addition to the varied subjects and locations included from the author's collection, this photo book is also sparingly padded with various prints from other public and private collections that span from the 1870s to the early 1900s. 


The book begins with a contextual background on Korea's international state of affairs prior to the introduction of the camera by foreigners. The meat of the book, though, is but only sprinkled with relevant background knowledge and instead favors a photographic exposé approach. This contrasts the compendium storytelling of Donald Clark's Missionary Photography in Korea or even John Rich's jaw-droppingly stunning Korean War in Color. Bennett's collection is more fundamental than these other photo journals; it tells what little remains of the earliest photographs of Korea. According to Bennett, pickings were slim for the time: "It is no exaggeration to say [...] that for every one Korean print dating from the 1880s, I would expect to see 500 Japanese prints. That ratio for the 1870s would be worse, and 1860s Korean prints may be non-existent." (p.18). Considering the scarcity of surviving photos, urban myths, general public misunderstanding about the photographic process, and the prevalence of non-Korean photographers, it's a wonder how Bennett was even able to accumulate the collection we have here. 


Bennett's extensive knowledge of photography in Japan, China and Korea coalesce in this generous collection. It's definitively niche, but it's good niche; it's a historically significant collection that deserves to be printed. My only gripe is that it's only 144 pages and can be effortlessly finished in a single sitting. True to form, though, there are several prints that the reader will not only stare at, but also come back to admire; characteristics of a good collection, indeed. For those with an interest in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Korea, this book is worth the price of admission.
Sunday, May 27, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: The Search


Title: The Search
Author: Bobby F. Griffin
Softcover: 191 pages
Publisher: Creative Speaking Bureau (Sixth Printing, 1986)
ISBN-10:  N/A
ASIN: B0007BFNP4, B000MW7FPY, B0007335S4, B0026PZ7XW





An obscure but touching story to say the least, The Search briskly tells the story of a former United States Army sergeant who searches for his befriended young Korean orphan from the Korean War. Ghostwritten by minister and former editor of the Bristol Herald Courier Howard Taylor, Griffin's story starts in late 1951 when he decides to drop out of high school, join the Army, serve in Korea, return home and his subsequent search for the boy 20 years later.

As exciting as the premise is, there's not much meat to this story, unfortunately. Upon a routine supply stop in Seoul, Griffin stumbles upon a young shoeshine boy named Ko Yong Jae and, feeling an instant sense of trust in him, hires him, nicknames him "Butch" and takes him back to the camp. After managing to allow the boy to stay so long as he stays out of trouble, Butch earns his keep by becoming the houseboy for Griffin and several other soldiers. They endure a few hardships together but above all, they become close friends despite a language barrier. About a year later, after their friendship developed into a surrogate father-son relationship, Griffin rotates back to the states and loses touch with Butch. Griffin struggles with PTSD back home and frantically opens his own service station and even marries a nice, church-going local girl. From here on the book loses it's mainstream appeal.

This book is saturated with Christian doctrine and religious references that tend to alienate the reader. It slows down the narrative. It's also frightfully repetitive. Not only does the tale of searching for the houseboy get retold five times before the first chapter even starts (counting the cover, back cover, foreword, preface, and prologue), many of the same Bible verses are quoted throughout the story in vaguely inopportune times; Matthew chapter 6 verse 33 is listed at least three times. While I certainly have no qualms with a man's religious faith and the strength that one gathers from it, this book's story is bogged down by it's choice of literary detours.

After a bumpy middle, the story resumes with Griffin suddenly inventing those cardboard floor mats you might have seen at the car dealership. You know, those temporary mats that keep your car's carpet clean from the service technician? Griffin invented that.

Flash forward to sudden wealth, Griffin contemplates going back to Korea to find Butch. After a hesitate travel commitment, he joins a group of religious tourists who plan on visiting East Asian churches. Griffin agrees to come along as a motivational speaker but he also has personal plans to find Butch, despite so many telling him the impossibility of doing so.

Anticlimactically, Griffin convinces a local paper to run a short piece about his plea, Butch's cousin reads it and within a day, they are reunited. Not much of a search, really. Butch has done well for his family and drives a taxicab. The two are reunited. No canvasing the streets. No private detective. Just a small story in an even smaller newspaper.

This part of the tale happens just past the halfway point in the book and yet nothing much else progresses past this point. Butch is elated to be reunited with the former soldier who showed him kindness and Griffin is simply amazed at Butch's presence. That's what gets repeated over. Griffin can't believe Butch is here. He can't believe he's back in Korea. He can't believe this is where such and such happened. The author assumes entirely too much background information and leaves the reader wishing that he were in on the excitement. It's hard to relate to Griffin's nostalgia of being back in Korea because he indulged so little in the beginning of the story. It doesn't have that certain empathetic emotional connection that a good story should have. There are moments that were surely emotional for the two men but because the reader hadn't had a chance to get to know the key players well enough, you end up not really caring that they are visiting some obscure village that you didn't know about. Despite a satisfying amount of personal photographs help to accompany the story, I never really got the chance to feel attached to anyone.

A curious oversight is the age of the two men. Griffin was either 18 or 19 when he met Butch and sized him up at around 10. However, the Korean newspaper listed Butch as being 15 at the time. That only makes them a few years apart when they assumed a father-son type relationship. When they meet up again in 1974, their lack of real age gap shows. I wonder why this wasn't addressed?

Impressively, this vanity publishing has gone through several editions. The most current edition that I could find is from 1986 but the original story was written and published in 1974. Each addition has added another chapter to the epilogue but sadly, there weren't many revelations. True stories certainly don't have Hollywood endings and here is proof.

Ultimately, it's a short, forgettable true story that can be finished in one sitting. I really wanted to like this, but in the end, it felt like an elongated newspaper article soaked in Christian rhetoric. It's a touching story that should have been told by someone else.

- - - - - - -

I stumbled across a molded-shut copy of this book in an abandoned house. I was so interested that I tried to find a readable copy at the local library but couldn't find a ISBN. That's because there wasn't one. The best way to get additional copies, it seems, is to write directly to Griffin at 1051 Island Road, Bristol, VA 24201 or by calling 703-466-8080. I don't know if there ever was an another edition after the sixth (1986) edition but I'd be curious to see if anything ever came of Butch and his family. SWere there finally allowed to move to America?

I should point out that the protagonist was born in June of 1932 and appears to be a good, upstanding man. He should not be confused with the formerly disgraced politian of the same name born in August of 1935.



Thursday, January 5, 2012 1 comments

Book Review: Sex Among Allies

Title: Sex Among Allies
Author: Katharine H.S. Moon
Softcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 15, 1997)
ISBN-10: 0231106432
ISBN-13: 978-0231106436





Case studies are decidedly difficult to objectively review because one isn't just reviewing the accuracy of details and author neutrality but also the writing style and subject matter, as well. A boring case study, important as it may be, might be less entertaining than one of relatively low importance but that is easy to get into. This book is caught somewhere in between the two. Sex Among Allies is, nonetheless, an important study that deals with Korean prostitution around American military installations from the 50s to the late 80s, particularly with their change prompted by the "Nixon" Doctrine of 1971.

The premise that not only did prostitution thrive among American servicemembers and Korean women during this time but that it was sanctioned by the American military and the Korean government is alarming. As such, the illegal business were allegedly managed by local police and enforced by club owners. Negative impacts on society such as rampant spreading of venereal disease, racial tensions among white and black soldiers (and local business owners) and the social stigma of association was the women's to bear alone. The book's objectively is called into question by placing virtually all blame on both governments' efforts to promote prostitution as a means of recreation for soldiers; the women to sacrifice themselves to be "personal ambassadors" from Korea. Many of these objections were addressed in a mass cleanup effort in the early 1970s.

The story Professor Moon tells, however, is unmistakably genuine. The social stigma of such work forced many women, mostly from low educational backgrounds, to be stuck in a constant cycle of debt and abuse with little chance to better themselves. The book's position is clear: the unfortunate circumstances regarding the shantytowns that erected around U.S. bases places an even shame on all parties involved; those who set up shop and those who patroned the illict clubs. However dated the book may be, as many of these camps have since shut down or moved, the book's mere existence surely are evidence of change.

This book isn't exactly coffeebook reading material. However biased the view taken in the book may be, the history of such affairs and the arguments presented are well-sourced and difficult to fully refute. Take the book's stance with caution but embrace it for exposing a shameful past in hopes of not repeating it.
 
- - -

Alright, alright. No dirty sailor jokes. I started reading this book before entering the service and finished it almost half a year later. I was a little squeemish reading it on base but I keep to myself mostly.

Professor Moon mentions Camp Arirang (1995) but I could only find this trailer. I'd like to know more about what all has changed since the book (and documentary). Are things as bleak these days as they seem in the study?
Sunday, January 1, 2012 0 comments

Book Review: The Reluctant Communist

Title: The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
Author: Charles Robert Jenkins, Jim Frederick
Softcover: 232 pages
Publisher: University of California Press (March 25 2008)
ISBN-10: 0520259998
ISBN-13: 978-0520259997




Former U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins' shocking story of dishonorable defection, perpetual hardship, and an unlikely romance unfold in this ghostwritten memoir told now decades after his "release" from North Korea. TIME magazine correspondent Jim Frederick assists in crafting a regret-filled attempt of rectifying Jenkins' 1965 defection and subsequent life across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into hostile territory. His life in North Korea was indeed extraordinary but is everything what it seems on the surface?

Jenkins' originally published his memoir in Japanese in 2005 and was then translated into Korean in 2006; this English language edition tells his unbelievable story from his unlikely desertion while leading a patrol, to his discovery of three other American defectors, to his adjustment to new life in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Because of his unique willingness to cross over, Jenkins and the other defectors occupied a unique position in North Korean society; not fully trusted yet strangely revered as "Cold War trophies". Some even rose to celebrity status after portraying despicable foreigners in popular propaganda films.

Although Jenkins mostly lived in rather spartan conditions, he's quick to point out that others in the North Korean countryside were not as fortunate during times of famine. His apparent ineffective brainwashing sessions were constant and government-assigned minders persistently dictated his day-to-day life. His residence changed often as did his assigned jobs; sometimes making fish nets other times teaching English. However regimented his life was, he still found himself in a situation to fall in love with a Japanese abductee. What happens when Jenkins leaves North Korea I'll leave for the reader to discover.

His narration is seductively easy to follow and makes appropriate detours when explanations are necessary to clarify context. The reader is cautiously drawn in to empathize with Jenkins and his plight. His story is told simply with few obvious embellishments. However, I'm still not fully convinced that the whole story is being fully disclosed. Jenkins' relationship with the other Americans is of particular interest, partly because some of the accounts conflict with what fellow defector Joe Dresnok recalls in the 2006 documentary Crossing the Line.

What concludes is a peculiar tale of almost Hollywood caliber. Reportedly, American film producer Brett Ratner has secured the rights to make a film adaption of Jenkins' story. One can only hope it's better than Tower Heist. That's not asking for much.

- - -

I've been interested in this story since I first came across it a few years ago. I posted about Joe Dresnok and Robert Jenkins before but after seeing Crossing the Line (2006) I always wanted to hear a different side of the story. The excellent British documentary focuses on Dresnok's story while Jenkins' 2008 memoir tells his side. There are a few conflicting accounts which I will leave open for those curious.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and wished I picked it up sooner. It gave me more of a rounded view of the life those four men lived. I only wish we could have known more about Abshier and Parish.
 
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