Hope and Love in Hell: Former North Korean Captive Charles Jenkins Speaks
In 1965, U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins deserted his post in South Korea and allegedly sought refuge in the communist North. He spent nearly four decades inside the “worker’s paradise.” After North Korea admitted to abducting Japanese citizens in 2002 and returned them to Japan, including Jenkins’s wife, Hitomi Soga, Charles Robert Jenkins re-emerged into the public eye–a relic of the cold war, an unsolved mystery and a figure of national interest. In July of 2004, North Korea finally let Jenkins leave. He turned himself in to the U.S. Army in Japan, was given a court martial and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. After his release, he relocated to Sado Island, off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, where he spends his days with his wife and family, working and remembering. This is part of his story. In his recollection of events, he raises questions about why he ended up in North Korea, contradicting his previous statements. Perhaps it is due to failing memory, or perhaps it is due to circumstances which even now he feels that he cannot divulge, no one– probably not even the man himself–knows completely.
The gift shop of the Sado Island Legend Museum was busy and noisy that summer afternoon. Japanese tourists, mostly retired men and women can’t wait to walk around the museum’s gift shop to take a glance at one man. He is in the corner, a tired old American, who looks like he has been working in the fields most of his life, not a gift shop. The man is quietly tending to his sole duty, which is to mechanically fill the local sweet biscuit boxes, despite the noisy crowd of people calling him from all sides, “Jenkins-san!” Some of the tourists solicit him from time to time for a souvenir photo. The shy little man from North Carolina doesn’t smile for the photos, and he returns to his work; the pattern repeats itself until the day is done. He lived in North Korea for over 40 years after being captured inside the Russian embassy in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in 1965, when he defected from the U.S. Army.
When asked for an interview, he first shakes his head. “I cannot leave my post now. I’m on duty until 4 PM.” After asking permission to his superior, Mr. Jenkins agreed to talk.
Charles Robert Jenkins, 73, is known by everyone in the island of Sado, off the west coast of Japan, directly facing China and the two Koreas. Jenkins fled his U.S. Army unit in South Korea in 1965, when he was only 24 years old and was caught in North Korea after a failed attempt to be sent back to the U.S through the Russian embassy in North Korea. In 2002, his wife Hitomi Soga, was released a month after Japanese former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s historic visit to Pyongyang in September of that year. During that historic meeting, North Korea admitted to abducting Japanese citizens and holding them in the country to train spies for the regime. In 2004, After forty years of communist captivity, he was finally brought to Japan with his two daughters, Mika and Brinda. When Jenkins arrived to Japan, the U.S. military sentenced him to 30 days in jail and a dishonorable discharge for deserting his Army unit, among other crimes.
Jenkins told JSRC that he was offered a job as a sergeant in Camp Zama, a U.S. Army post located in Kanagawa prefecture. Jenkins believes it was because the military could then question him anytime they wanted to. “They promised me a good salary but my wife didn’t want it,” he said. “In Kanagawa, they gave me a good house to live in.”
Jenkins later received a permanent resident status to remain in Japan with his wife and daughters.
The reason for his desertion is still unclear, did he simply surrender to North Korea as many reported? Or did he intend to sneak into the Russian embassy in North Korea hoping that they would save him from serving out his time in North Korea? In both cases, it was huge risk. What was so intolerable in the U.S Army that pushed Jenkins and three other American soldiers to surrender? We might never get a clear answer as he swore to his army lawyer to never reveal the true reason for his decision. Jenkins told the LA Times in 2009 that he deserted because he wanted to avoid a “sure death” in Vietnam. He told JSRC that he wanted to go to Vietnam because he “couldn’t make it anymore” in Korea. The answer contradicts his previous statements and even after repeated questioning Jenkins would not divulge what he had promised his army lawyer never to reveal.
Why is that Charles Robert Jenkins “couldn’t make it anymore” in North Korea? What made him feel it was worth deserting the U.S. Army? He won’t answer. Jenkins did say he regretted almost each and every day of his captivity for the incredible act he perpetrated in 1965, until he met his Japanese wife, who is 20 years younger than him.
Four American defectors lived in the same room. The first American to “go” to North Korea was Larry Allen Abshier. The second was James Joseph Dresnok, the third was Jerry Wayne Parish. Larry and Parish have now passed away. Jenkins was the number four. “Right now there is only Dresnok left in North Korea that I know of. But there could be more American soldiers in North Korea from the Vietnam War.” He said. According to Jenkins, in the late 60s and early 70s during the Vietnam War, each time the Communists would “liberate” a village in Vietnam, they would take all the people that were capable, clever and young, to send them away to North Korea for “education,” in fear that they would fight back against their new rulers. “They were forced to learn electricity, plumbing, stuff like that, not really going to university. After the war was over, they were all sent back and I heard rumors that in return, Vietnam gave them American soldiers, that might still be prisoners of war today.”
Remembering the story of one Romanian man in North Korea who defected to the U.S.A, he recalls meeting two Romanians who told him that they had seen people in the North Korean fields working who appeared to be American soldiers. “That Romanian who defected was a weapons dealer who was about to be caught. But I did meet two Romanians in North Korea in a shop in Pyongyang. I asked them what they were doing. They said they were television technicians. They were building a television factory. The reason [why they saw those possible American soldiers] is because the government was building a 48 km long road from Pyongyang to Nanpo. North Korea didn’t have a road to land the airplanes. They were building a runway, not for airplanes but for a road. While they were building this road, they had to take a detour in the mountains. That’s how the Romanians got to see these other people. And the driver told them that they were prisoners. I haven’t seen them, and I haven’t heard much more about them.”
In North Korea, some high military officials trusted Jenkins more than they did some other North Koreans. Jenkins explained. “Why? Well, when I worked at the military university, one time, I was down in my room eating, two generals and a colonel invited me over. The general kept talking to the other general and the colonel was talking to me. The general kicked the colonel out of the table, (He laughs), he said ‘Shut up,” the general looked at him and said ‘Listen, we trust Jenkins more than we trust you.’ The colonel replied, ‘I’m a colonel in the Korean People’s Army, who do you think you are talking to me like this’ The general says, ‘You could escape through Russia or China but Jenkins can’t. He is in Asia, he can’t go nowhere [because he can’t fade in the Asian crowd]. And he will never get out of North Korea, so we don’t care what he knows.’” Jenkins smiles, “Well, they didn’t know I was going to marry a Japanese woman who would be sent back.”
Jenkins published a memoir, The Reluctant Communist, a book his wife didn’t want him to write as she feared North Korean retaliation. In the book, he describes how he became a reluctant celebrity when the North Korean government used him as the American villian in its propaganda films.
American actors in North Korean propaganda movies were extremely popular, according to Jenkins. People in the streets started to recognize Jenkins who appeared in small parts of about 10 movies.
Jenkins: For the record…
The following is from the interview with Charles Jenkins conducted on June 27th, 2013. At times Jenkins makes cryptic remarks and appears to contradict himself in places. We have reproduced the remarks as he said them.
When people saw me, they would recognize all four of us Americans in me. The producer of the movie ‘Confrontation,’ designed my character, (“Doctor Kilton”) with a horrible haircut.”
Once, the other defector Parrish, asked the producer how does ‘Doctor Kilton’ look? The answer he got from the North Korean producer was that Kilton’s age was about 40, but he had to make him look like he was 80. “We do not want Americans to look handsome,” the producer then explained.
(The photo below was given to JSRC by Jenkins. It shows the scene from the movie Unknown Heroes, staging the funeral ceremony of Doctor Kelton’s wife. Looking closely at the photo, the other western looking actors are actually half Russians, which explains their western looks. Jenkins explained to JSRC that Russian men who crossed the borders sometimes left North Korean women pregnant)
“The 20-part spy series Unknown Heroes was made in 1978 – 1981. In that series, Jenkins plays Dr Kelton, labeled the ‘Mastermind of the Korean War’.” Johannes Schonherr, a German expert on North Korean movies, and author of North Korean Cinema : a History, based in Japan told JSRC. As Mr. Schonherr became interested in North Korea, he started collecting North Korean movies from various sources.
I can’t tell you why I decided to leave the U.S. Army, because I promised my military lawyer that I wouldn’t tell anyone. I left on a January 5th , about about 12 in the morning. I counted my soldiers, put them in position, I waited about an hour and it was very cold. I told them I heard a noise and that I was going to check it out. Then I said I would go back very slowly, it was 27 below zero. Anyway, that’s when I left. I took all my ammunition, I had a rifle, I had a T-shirt in my pocket, and tied it on my riffle, and walked all night like that. I walked across the biggest mine field in North Korea. They couldn’t believe that. They told me they had the biggest mines in that valley, in between these two mountains. “How could you possibly get through them?” I told them, “Well, I know why.” And I told them I ain’t gonna tell you why.” They said, “Can ever a solider do that?” I said, “Yes, any man can.” But why in the world didn’t I hit the wires? If I had hooked the wires, I would be beheaded, phouh! (Jenkins mimed a mine explosion.) To avoid the wires, I had to step real high, and step real slow for two kilometers. (Jenkins motions the gesture by pulling his knees very high and getting them slowly down. Then when there wasn’t any man at all, the ground froze so hard, I couldn’t hit them (the mines.) It froze.
I also drank a lot of beer before leaving. But my lawyer said, “If you were that drunk you couldn’t have made a night walk.” But before I left, my patrol leader, Lieutenant X, me and him exchanged our guns. Because they gave me a shotgun, I couldn’t keep the shields in it. So he took my shotgun and I took his rifle. If I was drunk, he wouldn’t have given me his rifle. He wouldn’t even let me go in that zone. I wasn’t drunk, my Lieutenant let me go. If I was drunk, he wouldn’t let me go, because they would have taken my rank away. I told no one that. I wasn’t afraid of the Korean war. I wanted to go to Vietnam, but they wouldn’t let me. I had been to Korea for 13 months and I had been to Germany for 3 years. And I didn’t want to go back to Korea, but they put me there because I could speak some Korean language at that time. But they didn’t let me in Vietnam. My 13th months was due in Korea, all I was expecting was to go back in Germany or France.
There are certain things I wanted to tell the U.S. I couldn’t do it in Korea. And that’s what I can’t tell. My plan was to go into Russia, they would turn me over to the American embassy and I would have gotten back to the U.S.A., straight to the Pentagon. But in North Korea they let nobody go nowhere. That’s for sure.
I was “caught” in North Korea, in a sense. I tried, with three other Americans, to go to the Russian embassy in North Korea. We went into the Russian embassy as if we were Russians. The Korean guards, they thought we were Russians. (He laughs) So we just walked in. The Russian embassy would have notified Moscow. Anyway at that time, the Russian president ordered us to be kicked out of the embassy. We were sent right back into North Korea. I don’t know who did it, but they put us in a room, the ambassador came in and he whispered something to the interpreter. And the interpreter said, “Well, I’m sorry but we will have to ask you to leave.” So that’s what we did.
Right after going to the Russian embassy, you wouldn’t believe how it was. We had one guard, all he could do was to scream at us all day. We were in a cell, and he would come in and beat on the table and scream. We were forced t sit on the floor with our legs crossed and arms crossed during one hour and after an hour we had to change over. That’s the way to punish you. And at times they would tie you up and beat the hell out of you. You see this scar? (points to chin) this is where my tooth came on to my lip.
You see that scar? (He shows a tattoo on his left arm.) There used to be “U.S. Army” written up here. At the military university, they cut off my skin to the place where it was written U.S. Army. Some North Koreans had seen my tattoo one day as I was wearing a short sleeved shirt. They grabbed me, they don’t give no anesthetic, nothing. You know what they say? The medicines are for the battlefields. They give the medicines to the military, not to the hospital dispensary. That’s where they cut off my skin. They took scissors and cut it off.
The first seven years they saw us as Korean War veterans. The Korean people hated Americans. The colonels and the high ranked officials were not so bad, but the lower ranked soldiers hated Americans.
We weren’t sent to reeducation camps, we got educated right there in our place. In the prison, they were always threatening us. They said they would make an example out of us. And I was often the one made an example, because I made more trouble than anybody. Also because I was the highest ranked.
I regretted every single day I defected from the U.S. army until I met my wife. After that, I thought, “Well, if I wasn’t here, it would have been hard for her.” Because if she hadn’t married me, she would still be in North Korea right now. That’s for sure.
But then, when Koizumi came back to North Korea, to meet Kim Jong-Il the second time, that’s when Kim Jong-Il agreed, if I want to leave, I could leave. (crying) But they thought I would come back (to North Korea) because I would go to jail in the U.S.A. They knew that. So, that’s how I came back. If my wife wasn’t sent back (to Japan) I wouldn’t be here.