IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Life in North Korea harsh for U.S. deserters

Four U.S. soldiers suspected of deserting to North Korea in the 1960s were forced to live together under constant surveillance, to scrounge for food and to study the works of Kim Il Sung for up to 16 hours a day.
Sgt. Charles R. Jenkins before his court-martial this week at Camp Zama, west of Tokyo.AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Far from finding a communist paradise, four U.S. soldiers suspected of deserting to North Korea in the 1960s were forced to live together in a tiny house under constant surveillance, to scrounge for food and to study the works of “the Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung, for up to 16 hours a day.

Two died before ever again seeing the outside world.

Shedding new light on a bizarre Cold War tale, former U.S. Army Sgt. Charles R. Jenkins said at his court-martial this week that he and the others lived for years as a tightly knit — if not always harmonious — group honed by hardship, poverty and frequent beatings.

Jenkins surrendered to U.S. military authorities in September after nearly 40 years in the secretive Stalinist state. He was convicted of desertion and aiding the enemy and began serving a 30-day sentence Wednesday.

His confession detailed decades of virtual imprisonment for himself and the others: Pvt. Larry A. Abshier of Urbana, Ill., who the military says went missing in 1962 at age 19; Cpl. Jerry W. Parrish of Morganfield, Ky., who is accused of deserting in 1963 at age 19; and Pvt. James Dresnock of Richmond, Va., who crossed into North Korea in 1962.

Two of four survived
“Of the three other Americans who lived in North Korea with me, only Dresnock and I are left,” Jenkins said in a dramatic statement read to the court by his military lawyer. A copy of the unsworn statement and another document outlining the reasons for his desertion were obtained by The Associated Press.

Jenkins, a native of Rich Square, N.C., said Parrish died in 1996 of an abdominal infection. Abshier died of a heart attack in 1983. Dresnock still lives in the North.

From shortly after he crossed into North Korea in 1965 until 1972, Jenkins said, he lived in a house with the three other men. He did not say why the others left their units.

Jenkins, however, confessed that he deserted on Jan. 5, 1965, because he was afraid of being shot while patrolling the Demilitarized Zone and of being sent to Vietnam. Jenkins, now a frail 64 years old, said he had intended to return to the United States somehow.

He soon realized that North Korea was not going to let him go.

“For many years we lived in a one-room house that we all shared,” he said in the statement. “We slept on the floor, there was most often no electricity, and we had no running water. We were allowed to bathe once a month, though in the summer we bathed more often in the river.”

Jenkins said their “job” was to study — in Korean — the philosophy of Kim Il Sung, which they did for 10 hours a day. He said he and the other Americans called it “the study of class struggle from the perspective of a crazy man.”

“If we didn’t memorize enough, or were not able to recite portions of our studies on demand, we were then forced to study 16 hours a day on Sunday, which was our only day of rest,” he said.

“I longed to leave that place every day.”

Soviets rejected asylum request
Jenkins said he and the others tried to escape by seeking asylum in the Soviet Embassy in 1966. Guards allowed them in, assuming they were Russian.

“Of course, when they found out who we were, they sent us out of the embassy, and none of us figured out why we weren’t shot by the North Koreans later on,” he said. “From then on, any time we did anything real stupid, we did it together, ’cause we figured they wouldn’t want to kill all the Americans at one time.”

Despite being under the constant watch of a minder, or “political leader,” the four organized other little rebellions that could have cost them their lives.

“During the first 10 years or so, our political leader lived directly in our home,” Jenkins said. “Once, when he was gone, we snuck up into the attic to see if we could scrounge some old electrical insulators. I was secretly building a fishing net to increase our food supply, and I needed the insulators as weights.” In the attic, he said, “we found microphones everywhere, and realized that the leader was taping everything we said between us.”

Parrish, he said, decided to bury the microphones in the backyard.

“Parrish told the leader he would give the microphones back if the leader would take him to Pyongyang to buy a bottle of wine,” Jenkins said. “The leader could have had us all shot for this, but he was too worried that he would be in trouble himself for allowing us to climb into the attic. Parrish got the wine, though he did not share it.”

Wife, daughters released to Japan
By 1980, they were allowed to live in houses of their own.

That year, Jenkins married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese who had been abducted by North Korean spies in 1978. Soga was allowed to return to Japan two years ago; Jenkins and their two North Korea-born daughters joined her in July.

Although Soga testified that Jenkins was a devoted father, she said their lives were hard.

“In the winter, we wore all the clothes we had just to stay warm,” she said in testimony Wednesday. “There were times our daughters went to bed hungry.”

Jenkins said he kept in contact with the other Americans.

“Dresnock and myself had been given a small two-room house each, and our homes were relatively close to each other,” he said. “Parrish and Abshier were moved miles away, and their homes were in close proximity as well.”

He said he and Dresnock were forbidden from communicating with Parrish and Abshier but eventually visited each other, “though we could have been punished severely.”

“In the end, I think we quietly hoped we would get caught and it would be done with,” he said.

Jenkins said the North Koreans used Dresnock as an enforcer.

“The North Korean army often used Dresnock to beat the other three of us when we did wrong, though there were plenty of North Korean soldiers who put us down as well,” he said. “I cannot remember how many times I was physically beaten during those times for this and that. I try not to think about that anymore, and usually I don’t.”

He said he was close to Abshier.

“Of us all, he was the simplest, the most scared, and my closest friend. I looked over him like a big brother,” Jenkins said. “A little piece of me died that day when he left us.”