The true story of Charles Robert Jenkins, an American hero who defected to North Korea and survived
Charles Robert Jenkins was stationed in South Korea as a soldier during the Korean War. Afraid that he would either be shot by the North Koreans or that he would be sent into the war in Vietnam, he decided defecting to the other side was his only option.
One of America's most famous defectors, Charles Robert Jenkins, has passed away at the age of 77. Jenkins remained a prisoner of the North Korean regime to whom he defected to during the Korean war for four decades before he was released into Japan along with his wife in 2004. He died this past Monday on Japan's sixth-largest island of Sado, where he was living with fellow former North Korean prisoner and wife Hitomi Saga, and their two children.
Jenkins' story reads like something straight out of a spy movie; it tells a tale of torture, betrayal, an unwilling settling into the country's culture, finding love in the most unexpected place, and eventual escape. A resident of Rich Square, North Carolina, he joined the Army National Guard in 1955, aged 15, below the minimum enlistment age, before joining the regular army in 1958.
During his second posting to South Korea, Jenkins was 24-years-old and assigned to night patrols. Fearing he would either be shot by fidgety North Korean guards or that he would be sent to the hellish battlefields of the ever-escalating war in Vietnam, he began drinking heavily and went into depression.
In his booze-addled state, he decided that his only means of escape from his current predicament would be to cross the 2.5-mile wide strip of mine-infested no man's land into North Korea, seek asylum in the Soviet Union's embassy in the country, and then be sent back to the US as part of a Cold War prisoner exchange program. Writing in his book The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty Year Imprisonment in North Korea, he said: "I was not thinking clearly. But at the time my decisions had a logic to them that made my actions seem almost inevitable."
Deciding he had to go ahead with his plan, he deducted he would need some liquid doses of courage to not falter. On the night of January 4, 1965, he removed the bullets from his rifle to prove to the North Koreans that he came in peace, told the men in the patrol he was leading that he was going to check something and slipped into the darkness, his whereabouts unknown for the next four decades.
As he would relay in future interviews and during his court-martial, none of his plans went as he had envisaged in his head. He likened his time in the then-Kim Il Sung ruled North Korea to a 'surreal nightmare in a land ruled by a system that is evil and a man who is evil to his bones.' The second he crossed over the South Korean border, he was taken prisoner and incarcerated in a single room. For company, he had three other similar-minded defectors who had concocted similar plans of escape: 19-year-old Jerry Wayne Parrish, 19-year-old Larry Abshier, and 21-year-old James Dresnok, who he would come to hate.
Jenkins says that their captors forced them to spend up to 10 hours a day memorizing the writings of the country's founder and then-leader Kim Il Sung. Failure to do so by any of the prisoners meant the 'study time' for the three other prisoners was incremented to 16 hours. Despite the constant attempt at brainwashing, Jenkins writes he managed to hold onto his sanity and characterized Kim Il Sung's writings as a 'class struggle from the perspective of a crazy man.'
He recalls how for seven years, he was regularly beaten by his captors. Adding on to that, he says he and his fellow prisoners often came to fists themselves, only making their already bad condition worse. In his memoir, he also accuses James Dresnok of being a 'bully and a snitch' who regularly assaulted him and would snitch to their captors of any misdemeanors.
Their fortune took a turn for the better when in 1972, the regime recognized them officially as North Korean citizens and gave them houses to live in. Yet, he says that the government kept an eye on them at all times and that he lived in the fear of being imprisoned once again.
He says that when the North Koreans spotted his U.S army tattoo, it was forcibly removed from his forearm with a knife, scissors, and no anesthetic, with the officers telling him it was a luxury reserved for soldiers wounded in battle. He also told the LA Times that doctors removed his appendix and one of his testicles in a single day, all because he was 'kicked when he was a school kid.'
He also said: "In North Korea, I lived a dog’s life. Ain’t nobody live good in North Korea. Nothing to eat. No running water. No electricity. In the wintertime you freeze — in my bedroom, the walls were covered in ice. You can’t bring your neighbor over for a drink. Why? People start drinking, they start talking. People disappear. And when one doesn’t disappear, they know he’s the one who squealed."
He was subsequently given the job of teaching English at a military school run by the North Korean Communist Party's Reconnaissance Bureau with the aim of teaching the students an American accent. That plan, they found out to their dismay, did not work too well because of Jenkins' thick South American accent that even his fellow Americans would struggle to understand.
It was at this point that the regime of Kim Il Sung's son and successor Kim Jong-il decided to make him and his fellow Americans into a propaganda film star. They were enlisted to play 'evil Westerners' in a massive 20-film project that became to be known as 'Unsung Heroes.' Jenkins thus became Dr. Kelton, a war-thirsty capitalist pig who was hellbent on elongating the Korean war for the profit of US arms manufacturers.
The North Korean government then also found him a wife, but with an ulterior motive that their children would grow up to be spies who could infiltrate the American government. He was introduced to Hitomi Soga, a 19-year-old Japanese citizen who had been kidnapped in 1978 and put to teach its spies Japanese that was to sound native.
Before they met, Soga was prepared for her meeting with Jenkins by a captor who told her that she would be marrying him. They would soon begin to love one another and bond over their mutual hatred of the regime. He wrote in his memoir: "Every night before we went to bed, I would kiss her three times and tell her, ‘Oyasumi.’ Then she would say back to me, 'Good night,' in English. We did this so we would never forget who we really were and where we came from."
Their first child, Mika, was born in 1983, followed by their second, Brinda, in 1985. In 2002, Kim Jong-il would meet with Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang, and thus began the process that would finally see both Jenkins and his wife free. After protracted negotiations, Soga was freed alongside four other Japanese abductees. The Japanese then lobbied on his and his daughters' behalf as well, and two years later, they were allowed to go to Japan as well.
His story finally came to light in 2004, when on September 11 that year, the then-64-year-old marched up to the gates of Camp Zama, a U.S Army base an hour's drive from Tokyo, with the aim of clearing his conscience. He went up to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Nigara, saluted, and said: "Sir, I'm Sergeant Jenkins, and I'm reporting."
He was first charged with desertion, aiding the enemy, soliciting others to desert, and encouraging disloyalty; a list of charges that could potentially see him given the death penalty. But because of sensitivities with its ally Japan, the general opinion on him and his wife in Japan, as well as a rumor that he helped inform U.S intelligence about North Korean spy programmes, he was able to secure a pre-trial agreement that he would plead guilty to only desertion and to aiding the enemy.
His punishment was a demotion to the rank of private, dishonorable discharge, loss of 40 years' back pay, and 30 days in jail; of which he would get out after serving 25 because of good behavior. He spent his remaining days working as a greeter in Mano Park, a tourist attraction on Sado, selling rice crackers. Though he admitted he wanted to go back to the US, he said he couldn't because his wife didn't want to go and he did not have a way to support her there.
Even in Japan, he constantly feared for his life, afraid that the North Korean government would still get to him, or his family. He said he had forbidden his daughters from pulling over if Japanese police tried to stop them while they were driving because he thought that North Korean agents might disguise themselves as cops or bribe officers to kill them.
He was the last of the four American defectors to pass away, and the only one who made it out of North Korea alive. In the end, the North Korean government did not get to him. Japanese news agencies reported that his death was a result of irregular heartbeat.
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