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Archive for Saturday, November 6, 2004

U.S. Army deserter describes harsh life of imprisonment, poverty in N. Korea

November 6, 2004

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— Far from finding a communist paradise, four American 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 "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 Jenkins told a 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 on 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 James Dresnock of Richmond, Va., a private when he crossed into North Korea in 1962.

"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 other three 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 patrolling the Demilitarized Zone and of being sent to Vietnam. Jenkins, now a frail 64-year-old, said he had intended to somehow return to the United States.

He soon realized North Korea wasn't 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."

By 1980, the three 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.

Though 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."

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