Ex-US Army defector Charles Robert Jenkins who spent decades in North Korea, dies at 77

A US soldier who defected to North Korea and was eventually allowed to leave after nearly 40 years as a prisoner, has died in Japan aged 77.

Charles Robert Jenkins was one of six American soldiers to defect to North Korea, and the only one to leave, and then tell his story.

As a young sergeant in 1965 on patrol along the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, the North Carolinian drank 10 beers and slipped across the border into the Communist hermit state.

It was a decision he would come to regret.  At his court martial trial in 2004 in Japan, he said that he worried he would be killed along the border or be sent to Vietnam.

“I know I was not thinking clearly at the time, and a lot of my decisions don’t make sense now, but at the time they had a logic to them that made my actions seem almost inevitable,” he wrote in his 2008 memoir.

He had planned to apply for asylum at the Russian embassy in North Korea then be returned to the United States in a prisoner swap.

The North Korean regime had other ideas.  Along with three other US defectors, he was kept for eight years and forced to memorize North Korean ideology.

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A home and family

In 1972, he was granted North Korean citizenship and given a simple home. His main job was to teach English to military officers and act in propaganda films as an evil American.

In 1980, North Korean authorities moved Hitomi Soga, then 21-years-old, into his home after she had been kidnapped from Japan.  Two weeks later they were forced to marry but came to love each other.  Together they had two daughters.

In his memoir, Jenkins describes a difficult life of repression, fear and abuse that provides insight into North Korea. 

He was repeatedly beaten. Once when it was noticed he had a US Army tattoo, he was taken to the doctor to have it cut off without anesthesia.

“You don’t say no to North Korea. You say one thing bad about Kim Il-sung and then you dig your own hole, because you’re gone,” Jenkins told his court martial, referring to the founder of North Korea.

Life in Japan

Soga returned to Japan in 2002 after then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang and negotiated the release of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in order to teach Japanese.

Jenkins and the couple’s daughters remained in North Korea, but were allowed to leave in 2004.

After being sentenced to 30 days for desertion, Jenkins was released and joined his family on Sado island, Soga’s hometown.

There he worked in a gift shop and wrote his memoir, The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea.

cw/jm (Reuters, EFE)