The American Sergeant Who Defected to North Korea: Charles Jenkins

During the 1960s the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached an all-time high. Events that come to mind are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the erecting of the Berlin Wall. On the other side of the world, the division between North- and South Korea had just begun settling in as a permanent reality, after the bloody Korean War was concluded with an armistice the decade before. Dictator Kim Il-sung, the founder of Communist North Korea, still ruled his Hermit Kingdom, closed off from most of the world.

Charles Jenkins

The Defection

Perhaps seemingly unrelated but crucial to know for this story, elsewhere in Asia the Vietnam Conflict was rapidly escalating. To many American servicemen at the time, Vietnam seemed like an inevitable destination. It was the same for 24-year-old Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins. He joined the army in 1958 and was deployed to Korea for a year in 1960. In late 1964 he was redeployed for his second tour. It’s how on that fateful night in January 1965 he found himself stationed at the border between North- and South Korea, tasked with regular patrols in the demilitarised zone. However, Charles was afraid of the certain death that awaited him in Vietnam. As the possibility of him being sent there got closer, he began getting more anxious and depressed. In turn, he began planning radical action to dodge potential deployment to Vietnam. Although admittedly, it’s doubtful his alternative was a better idea.

During one of his nightly patrols, he decided to leap into the unknown. Some reports state he drank ten beers that night. Together with his platoon, he patrolled through a wooded area in the demilitarised zone. Charles then ordered his men to wait for him while checking a supposed noise out in the dark. His men waited for him to return… and they waited. But Charles didn’t turn up. According to reports, his men sounded the alarm when he failed to return. Immediately, a massive search around the southern side of the demilitarised zone was set up. North Korea was known for its rogue tactics and abduction of a U.S. serviceman from the demilitarised zone didn’t seem unlikely. Regardless of the extensive search, his comrades never found Charles. 

It wasn’t until decades later the world found out what exactly transpired during those minutes Charles supposedly went to investigate something in the dark. It wasn’t a pre-planned abduction by the North Korean military. Instead, Charles simply rushed through the wooded area, onto North Korean territory. When he ran into dumbfounded North Korean border guards, he gave up his weapon and surrendered. Charles Jenkins had officially defected to North Korea, a country that would hold him for nearly forty years. After the extensive search didn’t turn up anything, and they investigated Charles’ recent mail, the U.S. Army considered defection the most likely reason for Charles’ disappearance.

Demilitarized zone

Yet the world didn’t know what happened to Charles after his defection – there was a near-complete media silence coming from North Korea during the following decades. It does the state’s moniker, the Hermit Kingdom, justice. Several weeks after his defection an internal radiobroadcast from Pyongyang made clear a U.S. serviceman defected. The reason given was because of the awful conditions of South Korea, leading the serviceman to believe the quality of life in North Korea was much better. But that’s about it. 

The immediate aftermath of how the American side perceived his defection can be pieced together from newspaper articles during that time. It goes without saying that it was heavily frowned upon. The press didn’t have any sympathy for Charles, and many articles really did a number on him. Newspaper editors also got a hold of the note Charles left for his mother before his defection, in which he apologised for the “trouble he will cause her.” The letter stated: “I know what I’ll have to do, I’m going to North Korea. Tell the family I love them very much. Love, Charles.”

Charles friends and family continued to believe he was abducted from the border. His mother, Pattie Casper, conveyed that Charles would not have willingly defected, even though he left a letter stating his intentions. Breadcrumbs of information about Charles’s life and situation were occasionally released from the Hermit Kingdom, but much of the case was shrouded in mystery. Only thanks to a curious turn of events in 2002, nowadays we know a lot about Charles’ life within North Korea… and about North Korea itself. 

Time in Captivity

What makes Charles’ story even more interesting is that he was able to escape North Korea. As one of the few people ever to do so. We’ll get to how he managed to escape the prison-state in a bit. But upon his release, Charles gave interviews recounting his defection and subsequent life. So we can actually get a glimpse from his perspective of what happened after that fateful night.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Charles reminisced how, looking back, he thought of himself as incredibly naive. He defected during the Cold War era, and the gameplan of the young sergeant was to be extradited to the Soviet Union through Pyongyang. And the Soviets would hopefully grant him asylum. Well, things didn’t even remotely turn out like that. Instead, for decades Charles remained, in what he described as a ‘gigantic, crazy prison nobody gets out of.’

That is not to say he was stuck behind bars for most of his life though. He might have been a Pyongyang prisoner but wasn’t stuck in a traditional prison as we know it. As one of the few Western prisoners in North Korea, he initially lived in a small room together with three other U.S. deserters. The North Koreans forced them to study Kim Il-sung’s works for ten hours per day, beating them regularly. They endured malnourishment and deplorable living conditions. According to his testimonies, he was forced to dig his own grave several times, as a form of extreme psychological torture.

Seven years later Charles finally received his own home and a North Korean passport. Yet he was still under constant surveillance and scrutiny. His house was unheated, which caused harsh winters, and thanks to the widespread famine in North Korea malnourishment was still a daily reality.

The lack of Western prisoners in the country might have been a blessing in disguise, though. It allowed Charles to play the archetypical ‘evil American spy’ in over twenty propaganda films. He also appeared on propaganda leaflets. When he wasn’t acting, he taught English at a military school. He wasn’t useless to the regime, and as such was allowed to continue living… albeit in hardship.

In his autobiography “The Reluctant Communist”, published after his release, he describes how he went to teach English at a military school during one summer. Due to the hot weather, he had his sleeves rolled up, exposing his U.S. Army tattoo. Several doctors were immediately summoned to the school. They grabbed Charles and used a scalpel and scissors to remove his tattoo without any anaesthesia. 

The Release

Now, although Charles willingly defected in 1965, North Korea actually has an infamous abduction program. They mainly abduct Japanese citizens. These are then employed as cultural trainers for their spies. Yeah, really. Shockingly enough there is a considerable list of Japanese people that are assumed to have been abducted by the North Korean secret service. Among these abductees was Hitomi Soga. This Japanese woman, a nurse, was kidnapped together with her mother in 1978 at the age of 19.

As it turned out, two years after her abduction, she was forced to live with Charles. She had been teaching Japanese to North Korean spies. The couple was forced to marry, and Charles was encouraged to take advantage of her. North Korea’s idea behind these forced marriages was to receive offspring with western characteristics that could be used as spies. The other three American deserters too were forced into marriages with abductees. Although not necessarily a recipe for love, Charles treated Hitomi with respect and the couple actually developed a loving relationship. They married, lived together for over two decades and even had two daughters. 

It was through his wife that Charles eventually was released from his decades-long captivity in North Korea. In 1994 Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung succeeded him. As a gesture for diplomatic rapprochement, Jong-il admitted that North Korea abducted thirteen Japanese citizens during the previous decades. By this point, eight of them already died, but he considered allowing the other five to travel to Japan to visit their family briefly.

After the Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang in the fall of 2002, Hitomi and four others were allowed to return home for ten days. Although their visit to Japan was intended to be brief, the Japanese government did not return their citizens. Instead, it opened negotiations to have the abductees’ family members repatriated in addition to the initial group. 

Many of these families eventually were allowed to return. North Korea hoped to earn some diplomatic goodwill. But Charles stayed behind with their two daughters because he feared Japan would extradite him to the United States. Over there he would be prosecuted for desertion. Other sources mention that Charles was brainwashed to the degree that he thought the entire ploy was an attempt by Pyongyang to test his loyalty. 

Two years later, in May 2004 Japanese PM Koizumi again travelled to Pyongyang, where he met with Charles. Charles reiterated his conviction that he was unwilling to leave North Korea. But in July that year, Charles and their two daughters flew to Indonesia. For Charles, one of the reasons besides seeing his wife, who he hadn’t seen for two years, was to receive urgent medical treatment. Indonesia was chosen as the destination because it didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. Initially, Charles was only allowed to leave North Korea temporarily, receive medical treatment, and subsequently return to Pyongyang.

Yet Koizumi and others managed to convince him to take the gamble, face a court-martial and be reunited with his family. Risking a life sentence, he travelled to Japan. In turn, Japan’s government requested a formal pardon from the U.S. government, which they declined to grant. After arriving in Japan in July, Charles reported to the U.S. Army Post Camp Zama, nearby Tokyo.  

In November that same year, his trial commenced. Charles pled guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy, was sentenced to thirty days in prison and received a dishonourable discharge. Due to good behaviour, he was released after 24 days. At 64 years of age, for the first time in 40 years, it appeared Charles was finally a free man again.

Charles Jenkins in 2007

Upon his release, the entire family moved to Sado, Hitomi’s place of residence before she was abducted. There, Hitomi became a nurse again, and Charles took up a job as a greeter at an attraction park. As far as I could find, his daughters managed to attain steady employment in Japan and ended up doing well for themselves. Up until his last moments, Charles hailed his wife as the heroine that saved his life. He passed away in December 2017, at the age of 77 in Sado.

San Bernardino Sun, Volume 71, 28 January 1965

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