Graeme Wood

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Defective: Return to Sender

Sgt. Jenkins‘s punishment is in his face — a withered, jug-eared mug that looks about two decades older than its sixty-odd years. In January 1965, Jenkins deserted his unit in the Korean DMZ and slinked into North Korean territory, where he intended to turn himself in and go home after a prisoner-swap. The scheme failed badly. Instead of going home, he ended up confined with a handful of other American deserters, beaten bloody by one, malnourished from the start, and forced every day to do nothing but read and memorize the works of Kim Il Sung. It is a measure of the unpleasantness of the ensuing four decades that one low point was the ripping of a U.S. Army tattoo off his arm without anesthetic, and a high point was watching a bootleg video of Michael Jackson’s (admittedly sublime) “Thriller,” with the volume turned to nearly inaudible levels, lest someone hear it, turn him in, and possibly have him shot.

Was it worth it? Yes, actually. The Reluctant Communist is a valentine in disguise. In the early 1980s, the North Koreans presented Jenkins with a bride, a kidnapped Japanese woman two decades his junior, and ordered him to rape her. (The North Koreans seem to have dealt with foreigners as exotic livestock, and have regarded their upkeep as a matter of animal husbandry.) He didn’t rape her, and instead, the two fell in love. When Japanese efforts eventually sprung her from North Korea in 2002, Jenkins and their two daughters soon followed, and he announced that he regretted his cowardice and suffered grievously in captivity, but that his bride was worth the hassle.

Life in Pyongyang is awful; other accounts can confirm that. The achievement of this weird memoir, written by the semiliterate Jenkins’s co-author, Time journalist Jim Frederick, is its simple evocation of the emotional space Jenkins and his bride, Hitomi Soga, claimed for themselves, even under the cruel gaze of the Kims.

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