Sunday, January 1, 2012

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.

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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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