I spent much of the weekend zipping through The Reluctant Communist, former Army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins‘ memoir of the 39 years he spent living in North Korea after walking across the demilitarized zone in 1965. It’s a harrowing read, primarily because it reveals the North Korean establishment to be even more deluded than I’d previously realized. There is actually a nice parallel in the story between Jenkins’ mindset before defecting and that of Kim Jong-il’s regime. As Jenkins explains it, he was afraid of being deployed to Vietnam, and reckoned that he would surely be court-martialed if he went AWOL in South Korea. So he figured that he’d hand himself over to the North Koreans, who would then hand him over to the Soviets, who in turn would send Jenkins back to America as part of a Cold War prisoner swap. An absolutely bonkers plan, especially since there was no love lost between Pyongyang and Moscow. But it made sense in Jenkins’ beer-addled mind, just as North Korea’s seemingly daft scheming must feel logical to Kim and his frightened underlings.
There is one passage from the book that really gets to the heart of this logical dysfunction. It is Jenkins’ account of North Korea’s 1978 abduction of his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, from Sado Island. After being assaulted and stuffed in a sack, Soga was loaded onto a ship and put out to sea. That’s when things got really strange:
They sailed the whole rest of the day and landed in Chongjin, North Korea, on the evening of the thirteenth. The next morning, they gave her breakfast and took her to the beach to look for clams. That is typical of how strange the North Korean cadres are, how out of touch they are with the emotions normal people have. Here they have just kidnapped you and your mother and separated you, they have ripped you from your home street in your own country without any explanation or any idea of what is going to become of you, and they are so out of touch with what they have just put you through and how you might hate them and fear them at that moment that they see nothing weird in saying, “Now that we have a few moments, maybe it would be fun for you to go to the beach to look for some clams?” They are that crazy.
This anecdote makes me wonder if a nation’s entire elite can suffer from emotional tone deafness, simply because they were raised and educated in isolation from the world beyond their borders. Or perhaps it wasn’t the isolation that deprived these cadres of their ability to pick up on social cues, but rather the fact that North Korean education is exclusively about indoctrination rather than socialization.
The bottom line is that human beings are far more malleable than we typically realize. The little things we take for granted—the capacity to recognize another person’s pain, the logical prowess to link cause to effect—are not instinctual, but the product of early reinforcement. If a warped system gets its hooks into a child, it’s equivalent to a virus embedding itself in a piece of software: The complete product may still look the same to the untrained eye, but it malfunctions in a precise and dreadful way.