Charles Jenkins: Prisoner of Pyongyang

Charles Jenkins describes the moment in 1965 when he left his US Army post and defected to North Korea as the biggest mistake of his life. In the next 40 years he was beaten, starved and lost his identity. Now free and living in Japan, he granted a rare interview to David McNeill

Tuesday 07 March 2006 01:00 GMT

It seems fitting that Charles Jenkins, a man who lived in such seclusion for four decades that most people forgot he existed, can now be found in one of the most inaccessible places in Japan: the remote former prison island of Sado, where he shares a small house with his wife, Hitomi, and daughters Brinda and Mika.

A shy man, Jenkins' whole demeanour, from the sad, wary eyes encased in a heavily lined face to the apologetic body language, seems crumpled, as though worn out from the 39 years, six months and four days he spent as a Cold War trophy in North Korea and the daily effort of having to readjust now, aged 66, to a very different life. "I got used to North Korea. You get beat in the face every day and you're expecting it. You don't care no more."

Jenkins' extraordinary life reads like a spy novel, and can be divided, like the best drama, into three distinct acts. The first was his upbringing in a poor community in North Carolina, where he dropped out of school, aged 15, to join the US Army. Act One ended on a freezing January night in 1965 when, drunk and unhappy, he deserted his post in the Demilitarised Zone which divides the two Koreas and defected to the North; one of the very few Americans to trade life under Uncle Sam for Uncle Kim. Today he calls that "the biggest mistake I ever made".

So began Act Two, behind the bamboo curtain, where he claims he was beaten, starved and robbed of his identity, eventually becoming Min Hyung Chang. He was saved, he says, by Hitomi Soga, the Japanese woman he married and who was 19 when she was abducted with her mother by Pyongyang's spies in 1978.

Soga Snr has never been found. "I think they hit her on the head and threw her in the sea," says Jenkins. "I know the way those guys work. They don't leave no witnesses."

Now Jenkins is in what seems certain to be the final act of his life, which began in September 2002, when an astonished world learnt of this Rip Van Winkle figure in the wake of a summit between the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. Jenkins stayed behind with his daughters when Pyongyang allowed his wife and four other Japanese to return home after admitting to its bizarre kidnapping programme. It took 21 months to reunite the family, during which Koizumi's loose strategy for normalising relations with Pyongyang fell apart amid a hardening of nationalist sentiments on both sides.

Finally though, after half a lifetime being buffeted between Cold War rivals, Jenkins and his wife were free, symbolised by a kiss in front of the media at Jakarta airport in July 2004. "In North Korea we didn't kiss in public," he says. "That's bad there."

Today, Jenkins lives on a five-year stipend from the Japanese government and on the proceeds of his Japanese book, which has sold more than 300,000 copies. From the hotel where we conducted this interview, he can see the spot where North Korean spies snatched his wife and her mother while they were walking home from a shopping trip. He says he still wonders whether something similar could happen to him now. "My life is not worth five cents, I know that. I don't think they have the nerve to come and get me, but they could assassinate me with a bullet through the head from a distance. But if it happens, everything I have written will come out."

The former sergeant served just 25 days in a US military brig in 2004 after being dishonourably discharged for desertion, and is thought to have bartered his freedom in exchange for information on North Korea. He says he was interviewed by the US military for almost two months, "every day from nine in the morning until five in the evening".

"They wanted to know where military installations were. I knew it all. I was told that they had an agent in North Korea for over 20 years who didn't give them one tenth of what I gave them."

Jenkins, who taught spies and military cadets English in the North, says he "would not be surprised" if Pyongyang has a nuclear weapon. "Close to my house was a mountain and Russia put missiles in there. Everybody knew that. Nobody goes up there or talks about it, but they're all aimed at Japan and South Korea. When Russia turned capitalist, all these scientists ran away."

He believes there are more Americans in the country. "I know they're there but can't prove it. They're left from the Korean and Vietnam wars. There is a place there where they got Americans farming."

But he is also critical of the country he left in 1965. "In my opinion, America made their first mistake when they didn't give North Korea the power plant they promised in the 1990s. America went back on its word. From that time on, relations got worse."

He says the Koreans were desperate to find replacements for old Russian power plants and did not even have the electricity to pump water. "I had to dig a well 10 metres deep to get water, but in the winter electricity was so weak it wouldn't pump the water. We all carried the water; it was hard work.

"America made me its enemy. I was the one hurting, just like in North Korea right now it's the people who are hurting."

Jenkins describes a heavily militarised state where "everyone was in the army" and which reached deep into the lives of its citizens via "leaders" who controlled everything from loose talk to bedrooms. He claims people are not free to choose a sexual partner, to talk to others or even to invite others for a private drink at home. "People get drunk and start talking," he says. "When Kim Jong Il first took over, about half a kilometre from where I lived was a scientific research centre, and these educated people, doctors, professors; they had a party and started drinking and talking about Kim and one of them squealed and all of them disappeared. They got sent to a concentration camp."

Pyongyang operates "five to seven camps," he says, and the camps have swallowed up whole families. "They found all that person's relatives and sent them too. I asked why one time and they said because your relatives will be against the government, so take them all."

Jenkins secretly indulged his love of American rock'n'roll by taking a screwdriver to his radio, which had been fixed so it couldn't be tuned. "I listened to and recorded Elvis, Beethoven, all kinds of music [broadcast from South Korea]. I took a thick piece of plywood, nailed it to the bottom of the wardrobe and made a compartment. I kept my videocassettes there: James Bond, Die Hard. I got them from foreign students. We watched the movies and hung a blanket over the window."

Above all, though, it is his graphic descriptions of poverty that stay in the mind. "We had rice and you'd wash it four or five times and it would still come out grey, it was full of bugs, rocks, four or five years old. You cook it and still break your teeth on the rocks. When I came to Japan I cooked my own rice and it was clean. I couldn't believe it."

In the 1990s Chinese and Russian support fell, leading to famine in the North. Jenkins says he stopped eating sausages after discovering they contained rat meat, and claims he was offered sexual favours for food. "My friend was a technician and he said: take my wife. I knew if I did we would not be friends no more."

Kim Jong Il called in the World Food Programme, "which his father would never have done. That helped a lot of people." He claims Kim Jnr also investigated the camps and freed many. "I say the son was better than the father."

He also sheds light on the desperation of his North Korean handlers after his wife said in 2003 that she was not returning from Japan. "They told me to choose one of my daughters to go to Japan," says Jenkins, who believes his handlers were grooming his children to become spies. "They said they would let her go to Japan. And I know what would have happened. She never would have come back, so they would have said: OK, she's got one, you've got one. It's finished. I said I'm not splitting my family."

He claims the Koreans then offered him incentives to stay in the country, including a new car, house and a 26-year-old bride. "There was a nurse in the hospital treating me [for kidney problems in April 2004] ... They would have given me her or any other woman I wanted if I had stayed and brought my daughters back. I knew too much."

When the family finally reunited in 2004 amid a blizzard of media coverage, one Japanese broadcaster said Soga's dream had finally come true, but sadly the third act in Jenkins' astonishing life has no fairy story ending. Sources close to the family say the transition to life in Japan has been a struggle. Jenkins speaks no Japanese, and relies on Korean to communicate with his family, a situation he describes as "difficult". "I've spoken more Korean than I have English; I've spoken it for 40 years. Sometimes I even think in Korean."

He spends a lot of time at home alone watching American movies while his wife works in an office in Sado City. "They live separate lives," says one source. The city wants him to teach English or become a tourist guide, but Jenkins' age and heavy accent would make either a challenge. He will apply for Japanese citizenship in July, but admits he does not know "how it's going to work". "I got to learn Japanese," he says.

His daughters have quickly become fluent and are settling down in Sado; Mika will begin training as a kindergarten teacher this year and Brinda wants to be a wedding planner. Their father says they liked America when they went last year to visit his ailing mother, but moving there is out of the question. "That would look bad in Japan."

It is hard to escape the impression of a man who is still not in control of his life, trapped this time not by the arbitrary demands of a nightmare Orwellian state but by the ties of the past, by mortality and of duty to the country that he believes saved him from dying in North Korea. "I'll always be grateful," he says as he walks toward the car he has only just learnt to drive.

Is there anything he wants to do before he dies? "I wish I could speak directly to Kim," he says. "But I promised America I would have nothing ever again to do with North Korea."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in