Daily Archives: 3 September 2004

U.S. Army Deserter Charles Jenkins Talks

NK Zone links to a Far Eastern Economic Review story on Charles Jenkins that is the most sympathetic portrait I’ve read so far–engineered by his very capable military lawyer apparently.

Kudos to Jeremy Kirk of the Far Eastern Economic Review for getting the first interview with U.S. defector Charles Robert Jenkins. He is now in Japan with his Japanese wife Hitomi Soga (who as a young girl was abducted to N.Korea), and is wanted for desertion by the U.S. military. Several interesting things came out of the interview:

– He plans to turn himself in to the U.S. military, to “clear my conscience.” He pleads guilty to at least 1 of the four charges against him.

– He was beaten frequently by another U.S. defector, James Dresnok (who will soon be profiled in a documentary as noted recently by NKzone).

– He suffers from panic disorder as a result of the way he was treated in North Korea.

– He once attempted to leave N.Korea by requesting asylum at the Russian embassy.

– He says he and his wife Hitomi shared a hatred for the North Korean regime.

– He says that earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi had offered to take him back to Japan. He declined because North Korean authorities had threatened him.

– He is offering the U.S. government information about other foreign nationals used as spies in exchange for an agreement in which he would be sent home to his family in the U.S. rather than to prison.

Here are a few snippets from a longer FEER article linked via Oranckay.

Jenkins arrived in North Korea already a service veteran. He dropped out of school in North Carolina in the seventh grade, not long after the death of his father, and in 1955, at 15, he entered the National Guard. After an honourable discharge in April 1958, he enlisted in the regular Army. By August 1960 he had begun a 13-month tour in South Korea, during which he was promoted to sergeant; he was returned for a second tour in September, 1964. Then, on a bone-chilling night early the following January, on patrol along the Demilitarized Zone, the 24-year-old sergeant with an unblemished nine-year service record vanished. The U.S. government considers him a deserter, saying that he left behind letters stating his intention to defect; members of his family in the U.S. have said they are convinced that he was captured by the communist state….

Now that he’s left the country, Jenkins no longer disguises his bitterness at the North Korean regime. His legal defence is based in part on the notion that he learned to feign fealty to a regime he despised to avoid death and keep his family together….

What he wants now is an end to a nearly four-decade Odyssey, as he prepares to turn himself over to the Americans. He has no interest in getting a civilian attorney. “The American Army has supplied, assigned a very capable man to me, to help me, bring me to military justice. I don’t think I need no civilians. All I want to do is clear myself with the American Army.”

I don’t know why I feel any emotional investment in this story. Maybe it’s watching a stoically emotional Hitomi Soga with a camera in her face on so many Japanese news stories. Maybe it’s wanting to get beyond the absolutely idiotic fixation on Vietnam in the current U.S. presidential campaign.

Please, can we just forgive Clinton and Cheney and Brokaw and Matthews and O’Reilly and Russert and everyone else who avoided military service altogether, and Bush and Gephardt for taking the National Guard route, and Gore and Safire for taking the military reporter route (and me for taking the language-school route), and Kerry for bailing out on his Swiftboat “Band of Brothers” just as soon as he got his third purple heart? Jenkins wasn’t a politically ambitious officer. And he was very far from being a Yalie. He was a hardscrabble, ill-educated NCO, who seems to have done something very stupid nearly 40 years ago. He’s willing to face military justice–as he should–and to pay a price to keep his family together.

Could we please just concentrate a bit more on current atrocities and continuing atrocities?

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The Mississippi Frontier

Naipaul’s chapter on Mississippi is entitled “The Frontier, The Heartland.” Until reading him, I had never considered Mississippi to be a frontier state. But it is, at least in part. And I should have remembered from reading Frederick Law Olmstead‘s The Cotton Kingdom many years ago.

“My mother and father used to tell me about when they would hang people in the courthouse square. Legal hangings, not lynchings. That was when my father and mother were children. And my daddy was born in 1897. And that was just abhorrent to me–and it was to them. These were stories that people would tell you as you were growing up. I think we’ve come a long way. It seems like people are becoming more civilized, I hope.”

The stories told to Ellen as she was growing up were frontier stories; that was how I regarded them. They had echoes of any number of Western films; and it was remarkable to hear them from someone who had just turned sixty. In one lifetime, then, it seemed that she had moved from frontier culture, or the relics of a frontier culture, to late twentieth-century Jackson and the United States. It gave a new cast to my thoughts, and a new cast to my conversation with people….

Ellen’s thoughts, just before we separated, were of her father, who had died when she was thirteen. “My father told me you never got ahead by stepping on somebody’s back. We all need to come up together.”

That had been the great discovery of my travels so far in the South. In no other part of the world had I found people so driven by the idea of good behavior and the good religious life. And that was true for black and white.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), p. 164.

I must confess a family scandal. One of my great great uncles was hanged as a horse thief in Wyoming (via Texas) in 1878, a fact which so scandalized my maternal grandfather as to cause him to scratch his middle name (which he shared with that uncle) out of the family Bible.

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Naipaul Asks Welty about Rednecks

And it was of the redneck, the unlikely descendent of the frontiersman, that I talked to Eudora Welty when I went to call on her. I had arrived early, and waited on the street below the dripping trees. She was ready early, and could clearly be seen through her uncurtained front window. But I was nervous of knocking too soon….

The frontier was so much in her stories: a fact I had only just begun to appreciate. And she was willing to talk of the frontiersman character.

“He’s not a villain. But there’s a whole side of him that’s cunning. Sometimes it goes over the line and he becomes an outright scoundrel. The blacks never lived in that part of the state. They came over to work on the plantations. Most of the rednecks grew up without black people, and yet they hate them. That’s where all the bad things originate–that’s the appeal they make. Rednecks worked in sawmills and things like that. And they had small farms. They are all fiercely proud. They dictate the politics of the state. They take their excitement–in those small towns–when the politicians and evangelists come. Scare everybody, outwit everybody, beat everybody, kill everybody–that’s the frontiersman’s mentality.”

I told her the story Ellen had heard as a child about the rednecks to the south of the town where she had spent her summers: the story of traveling salesmen who had been roughed up and hitched to a plow and made to plow a field. Ellen had said that this story had come down from the past; and I had thought of it as a romantic story of the wickedness of times past, an exaggerated story about people living without law. But Eudora Welty took the story seriously. She said, “I can believe the story about the salesmen. I’ve heard about punishing people by making them plow farms.”

We talked about Mississippi and its reputation. “At the time of the troubles many people passed through and called on me. They wanted me to confirm what they thought. And all of them thought I lived in a state of terror. ‘Aren’t you scared of them all the time?’ A young man came and said that he had been told that a Mr. So-and-So, who was a terrible racist, owned all of Jackson, all the banks and hotels, and that he was doing terrible things to black people. It was a fantasy. It wasn’t true. The violence here is not nearly as frightening as the Northern–urban–brand.”

A frontier state, limited culturally–had that been hard for her as a writer, and as a woman writer? The richness of a writer depends to some extent on the society he or she writes about.

She said: “There is a lot behind it, the life of the state. There is the great variety of the peoples who came and settled the different sections. There is a great awareness of that as you get older–you see what things have stemmed from. The great thing taught me here as a writer is a sense of continuity. In a. place that hasn’t changed much you get to know the generations. You can see the whole narrative of a town’s history or a family’s history.”

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 213-214.

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