Forty years ago Charles Jenkins, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, was on patrol in Korea. He deserted. This wasn't an accident; he intentionally chose to defect to North Korea and desert the U.S. military. He has said he was afraid he was going to be transferred to Viet Nam. He wasn't a green, rifle-bait kid at the time. He was about 25 years old and he was a sergeant. This man made a choice.
What did he do with the Norks for the last 40 years? They kept him around for propaganda value and trotted him out from time to time for that reason only. While in Korea he was married to a Japanese woman who had been snatched by the North Koreans and was being used to train Nork spies, under compulsion. When the two of them became old, useless and a little frail, the Norks finally dumped them. The wife was sent back to Japan, which had been trying to obtain her return since the late 70's. Charles Jenkins was permitted to turn himself in to U.S. authorities as a military deserter for the last 40 years.
When he turned himself in and confirmed the fact, while no longer under threat of North Korean compulsion, that he had freely chosen to defect and desert, then, and only then, was he officially given a dishonorable discharge. I suppose he had not been formally discharged before because until he confirmed it for himself, there was always the possibility and hope that he had been snatched, in which case he was not really a deserter. But he was a deserter and a defector by his own admission. He was convicted and was locked up for two or three weeks, and then permitted to go to Japan to be with his wife.
What parts of American culture did he miss in the last forty years? The world wide web. Sesame Street. E-mail. Star wars. Personal computers. Cell phones. Video rentals. Mastercard and Visa. Widespread effective birth control. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. Civil rights. Cable television. Home VCRs. Automotive fuel injection. Air bags. And ibuprofen!!!! What did he get in return? North Korea fed him, more or less.
There are many qualities that may be found in varying degrees in humans. One such human quality is stupidity. Another is weakness. Defecting to North Korea was, and there are no other good words for it, stupid and weak.
But compare Jenkins' stupidity to the behavior of some of the ordinary Japanese soldiers left behind in the jungles at the end of WWII. At some level it is probably stupid to continue serving alone in the jungle, following wartime orders with no follow-up orders for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. But such stupidity arises out of another human quality -- fidelity. The "stupidity" of the left-behind Japanese soldiers was really fidelity. Fidelity is a quality insufficiently valued among many American opinion-makers, and is seldom mentioned in ordinary discourse except in the company of U.S. Marines. And Jenkins had none of it.
Jenkins wants to see his mother, now. I guess that makes him an okay guy, now, after all, in some people's eyes. But for myself, I wonder who is feeding him now that North Korea isn't, and mostly I wonder why they bother.