Charles Jenkins, a former American soldier who defected across
the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea in 1965 and was held by
the totalitarian regime for 40 years, died in Japan on Monday
at the age of 77.
Jenkins, who was freed in 2004, had lived on Sado Island with
his wife, a Japanese woman named Hitomi Soga who herself was
kidnapped by North Korea and forced to teach her language to
Pyongyang’s spies. Jenkins’ death was first reported by Kyodo
News and Japan’s NHK broadcaster, who said the cause was heart
In January 1965, Jenkins decided to cross into the North and
desert the U.S. Army in an attempt to avoid serving in Vietnam.
He drank 10 beers to soothe his nerves, unloaded his
military-issue rifle as a gesture of peace and walked across
the border hoping he could travel through the country and
possibly seek asylum in Russia.
But those hopes were quickly dashed, he told The Los
Angeles Times earlier this year, and Jenkins said in retrospect
that a lot of his decisions “don’t make sense now.” He was held
for eight years in a room with three other American defectors
and forced to memorize information about North Korean founder
Kim Il Sung, beaten at times and forced to live in bleak,
“In North Korea, I lived a dog’s life,” he told the Times.
“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.”
Jenkins was eventually moved into his own home, and began to
teach English and play roles as an evil American in North
Korean propaganda movies.
In 1980, a then 21-year-old Soga was moved into his home by
government authorities and they were forced to marry just weeks
later. They later fell in love through their mutual hatred of
the North, he told the Times, and had two daughters.
“After I met Hitomi, my life changed,” he said, according to
Soga was released through a deal between the North Korean and
Japanese governments in 2002, and Jenkins and their daughters
were released themselves two years later in 2004, according to The
Washington Post. Then in his 60s, Jenkins was court-martialed
on a U.S. Army base in Japan that year and sentenced to 30 days
in prison for desertion, but was released early.
He went on to live in Japan with Soga and told Kyodo in 2012
that he was happy with his
newfound freedom and his work at a souvenir shop at a local
museum on Sado Island.
Shortly after the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who
was detained in North Korea after he was accused of stealing a
propaganda poster from his hotel, Jenkins said he couldn’t
understand why Americans would visit North Korea as tourists.
“It’s crazy,” he said in his interview with the Times. “North
Korea will do anything to keep a foreigner.”
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