Torture, brainwashing and movie stardom: The extraordinary life of Charles Jenkins, the US soldier who defected to North Korea

Charles Robert Jenkins endured beatings, hunger, the forced removal of a testicle, and became a North Korean film star by playing a Capitalist baddie in a propaganda film

Adam Lusher
Tuesday 12 December 2017 18:24
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US soldier Charles Jenkins who defected to North Korea stars in 1970s film

It was a decision inspired by alcohol, depression and stupidity.

On the night of January 4-5 1965 Charles Robert Jenkins, then a US Army sergeant, slipped across the demilitarised zone he was supposed to be guarding and defected from South to Communist North Korea.

His plan – if it ever even amounted to that – seems to have been to escape the dangers of getting shot by jittery North Korean border guards or being sent to fight in Vietnam.

It was a mistake that would haunt Jenkins, who has now died aged 77, for the rest of his life.

He told the men in the patrol he was leading that he was going on alone to check something, disappeared from view down a hill, and was not seen again by anyone in the free world for nearly 40 years.

Only in 2004 did a 64-year-old Sgt Jenkins make it to Japan to face a US Army court martial and to reveal the horrific price he had paid for his folly.

He had, he made clear, endured a surreal nightmare in a land ruled by “a system that is evil and a man who is evil to his bones”.

Jenkins told of beatings, deprivation and the forced removal of one of his testicles, of being both a captive and a film star - thanks to his portrayal of an American warmonger Capitalist - and of finding love with a Japanese woman who had been kidnapped by North Korea and made to train its spies.

Originally from North Carolina, Jenkins had joined the US Army aged 18 in 1958, having never graduated from high school.

Jenkins at his court martial aged 64, after he made it to Japan and reported to a US Army base, having been AWOL for more than 39 years

During his second posting to South Korea, the 24-year-old sergeant started drinking heavily and suffered from depression.

He came to fear being shot dead by North Korean troops who might view the night-time border patrols as provocation.

And if he somehow survived that, he thought, he would be sent to die in the escalating conflict in Vietnam.

Jenkins, whose IQ was way below average according to US military aptitude tests, seems to have hit upon the idea of reaching the safety of the US, via North Korea.

Once he had defected, he ‘reasoned’, he could seek asylum in the Soviet Union’s embassy, thus paving the way for him to be returned to America by the Communist Russians in a Cold War prisoner swap.

“I was not thinking clearly,” he admitted in his memoir The Reluctant Communist, “But at the time my decisions had a logic to them that made my actions seem almost inevitable.”

After steadying his nerves by getting drunk on ten cans of beer, Sgt Jenkins went through with his scheme, removing the bullets from his rifle to show the North Koreans he came in peace, and walking across a 2.5-mile wide strip of mine-infested no man’s land.

As he would eventually tell his court martial, after just one day in North Korea, he realised he had made a terrible mistake.

Jenkins found himself effectively incarcerated in a single room with three other young, poorly educated GIs who had also defected: Jerry Wayne Parrish, 19; Larry Abshier, 19; and James Dresnok, 21.

Their Communist minders, recalled Jenkins, forced them to spend 10 hours a day memorising the writings of North Korea’s founder and then Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung. One man’s failure to correctly recite the words – in Korean – could result in a beating or study time being increased to 16 hours a day, for all four Americans.

“Those cruel bastards,” wrote Jenkins in his memoir, “Hated me and the other Americans so deeply they refused to see us as human and enjoyed making our lives hell.”

The attempted brainwashing failed. Despite memorising them perfectly, Jenkins characterised the Supreme Leader’s writings as "class struggle from the perspective of a crazy man" – but only once in the relative safety of his court martial.

Jenkins endured this existence with his fellow defectors for seven years. At times, stuck in such close confinement, the Americans fought amongst themselves, their fistfights adding to the beatings administered by their Communist minders.

In his memoir, Jenkins accused the 6ft 4in Dresnok of being a bully and a snitch who enthusiastically assaulted him at least 30 times and regularly told the minders of any misdemeanour committed by his fellow GIs.

From North Korea, where he lived until his death last year, "Comrade Joe" Dresnok denied the claims.

In 1972 the Americans’ conditions improved somewhat when the regime declared them North Korean citizens and gave them houses of their own.

The beatings, constant surveillance and occasional torture, however, continued.

Jenkins said that when the North Koreans spotted his US Army tattoo it was hacked out of his forearm with a knife, scissors, and no anaesthetic.

Regime officials watched and laughed as Jenkins screamed in pain. Anaesthetic, he was told, was a luxury reserved for soldiers wounded in battle.

Nor was this the only needless operation that Jenkins said he endured.

In an interview with the LA Times in August this year he revealed that in a single day, doctors removed his appendix and then one of his testicles.

This, he said, was “Because I was kicked when I was a school kid.

“I didn’t have no problem, but they found out about it, and said, ‘That’s gotta come out.’”

He was put to work teaching English at a military school run by the North Korean Communist Party’s Reconnaissance Bureau.

The idea was to teach the North Koreans American pronunciation. It took them until 1985 to realise that Jenkins’ thick Southern accent, which even some Americans would struggle to understand, was hindering, not helping the students.

By then, though, Jenkins and the other defectors had found other, more bizarre employment.

With Kim Il Sung’s son and eventual successor Kim Jong-il becoming convinced of the value of propaganda films to the revolutionary struggle, the Americans were enlisted to play evil Westerners in what became a sprawling 20-part epic series of films called Unsung Heroes.

And so Jenkins found fame in North Korea as Dr Kelton, the pantomime villain who like all warmonger Capitalists was determined to keep the Korean War going to boost the profits of US arms manufacturers.

“After the first movie [Nameless Heroes],” recalled Jenkins, “I would walk down the street and someone would yell, all excited and happy, ‘Kelton Bac-Sa [Dr Kelton]!’ and even regular North Koreans would ask for my autograph.”

The government also found him a wife.

Hitomi Soga had been kidnapped in 1978 aged 19 from Sado island, Japan, one of a number of Japanese citizens kidnapped by the North Korean regime and made to teach its spies how to speak their language like a native.

Jenkins met Ms Soga in 1980 when he was 40 and she was 21.

Ms Soga would later tell her husband’s court martial that a minder prepared her for that first meeting, which was ostensibly an English lesson, by telling her she was to marry the American.

Years later, Jenkins would become convinced it was part of a plan to produce children that the North Koreans could use as spies.

And yet, as Ms Soga put it at the court martial, “Little by little, we started to love each other.”

They bonded, it seems, over a mutual hatred of North Korea.

“It wasn’t long after we were married that I asked her what the Japanese word for ‘good night’ was,” Jenkins recalled in his memoir.

“Thereafter, every night before we went to bed, I would kiss her three times and tell her, ‘Oyasumi.’ Then she would say back to me, ‘Good night,’ in English.

“We did this so we would never forget who we really were and where we came from.”

Their first child, Mika, was born in 1983, followed by a second daughter Brinda in 1985.

His love for his wife, said Jenkins, gave him the strength to survive: “When I met her, my life changed a lot. Me and her together—I knew we could make it in North Korea. And we did.”

Although surviving in North Korea was by no means easy.

“In North Korea, I lived a dog’s life,” Jenkins told the LA 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.”

No-one in the Jenkins family was allowed to leave their house without a political supervisor, and nobody ever dared criticise the North Korean regime.

“You can’t bring your neighbour over for a drink,” Jenkins recalled. “Why? People start drinking, they start talking. People disappear. And when one doesn’t disappear, they know he’s the one who squealed.”

One day, he saw dogs digging up a mass grave near his home.

And yet, as a prized propaganda asset, Jenkins knew full well he had it far better than most in the ‘Hermit Kingdom’.

As millions of North Koreans starved to death in the famine of the 1990s, the Jenkins family received rations of rice, soap and clothing.

Even if the rice was crawling with insects, said Jenkins, it was much better than what “the regular Korean” got, which was nothing.

And then in 2002, the sequence of events that would lead to Jenkins getting out of North Korea began. After Kim Jong-il met with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang, Ms Soga and four other abductees were allowed to return home to Japan.

Fearing punishment if the regime detected any sign that he wanted to leave too, Jenkins stayed behind in North Korea with Mika and Brinda.

But after Japanese diplomats lobbied on behalf of him and his wife for two years, the North Koreans let Jenkins and his two daughters go to Japan.

Jenkins with his wife after landing at Tokyo's Haneda airport in 2004, more than 39 years after he defected

On September 11 2004, in the hope of clearing his conscience, the 64-year-old marched up to the gates of Camp Zama, a US Army base an hour’s drive from Tokyo, saluted smartly and told Lieutenant Colonel Paul Nigara: “Sir, I'm Sergeant Jenkins, and I'm reporting."

After more than 39 years, the longest-missing American deserter ever to return to the US Army was back.

At first he was charged with desertion, aiding the enemy, soliciting others to desert and encouraging disloyalty, a charge sheet that carried a potential death penalty.

But the US authorities had to be sensitive to the feelings of its ally Japan, where public feeling for Ms Soga and others kidnapped by North Korea ensured a great deal of sympathy for Jenkins.

There was also speculation, never confirmed, that Jenkins benefited from being able to tell US intelligence about North Korean spying programmes.

He secured a pre-trial agreement that he would plead guilty only to desertion and aiding the enemy (by teaching his heavily-accented American), and in return his punishment would be limited to demotion to private, dishonourable discharge, loss of 40 years’ back pay and 30 days in jail.

In what was reported as an attempt to minimise US media interest, the one-day court martial took place on Wednesday November 3 2004, at a time when votes were still being counted in that year’s presidential election.

Jenkins was released after 25 days, five days early because of his good behaviour.

Shortly afterwards, as reported by Time magazine, he broke down in tears as he said: “I made a big mistake of my life, but getting my daughters out of there, that was one right thing I did."

The family went to live on Ms Soga’s home island of Sado. By the time the LA Times caught up with him in August of this year, Jenkins was working as a greeter in Mano Park, a tourist attraction on Sado, selling senbei rice crackers.

Tourists, it was reported, would spot him and delightedly squeal “Jenkins-san!”.

Jenkins would passively pose for photos.

“I'd like to go back to the US," he said, "But my wife don't want to go, and I have no means to support her there. So I figure might as well stay where I'm at.”

To the very end, it seems, Jenkins was haunted by his experiences in North Korea.

Even in Japan, he feared that the regime would somehow get to him, or his family.

“I worry about my daughters more than anything,” he told the LA Times.

He had, he said, forbidden them to pull over if Japanese traffic police tried to stop them while they were driving. The possibility that North Korean agents might disguise themselves as Japanese cops or bribe genuine officers was, he thought, too great to ignore:

“North Korea give them enough money,” he said, “You don't know what they'll do.”

“North Korea,” he added, “Wants me dead.”

So far, though, all the indications are that Jenkins died not at the hands of Communist assassins, but from natural causes.

A Japanese news agency was reporting that Jenkin’s death, on Monday, was the result of an irregular heartbeat.

He was the last of the four GI defector roommates to die, and the only one to have made it out of North Korea alive.

Abshier died of a heart attack in 1983, Parrish of kidney disease in 1998 and Dresnok of a stroke in November 2016, all of them passing away in North Korea.

Only Jenkins could ever speak freely about his experiences, and four months before he died, amid mounting tension between Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea and Donald Trump’s America, the regretful defector issued what was effectively a warning.

“I don't put nothing past North Korea,” he told the LA Times. “North Korea could do anything. North Korea don’t care.”

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