Who Was Charles Jenkins The U.S. Defector Who Described North Korea As ‘Giant Demented Prison’?

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Charles Robert Jenkins was a U.S. Army sergeant who achieved notoriety when he defected to North Korea in 1965. As reported by the BBC, Jenkins died on Sado Island, Japan, yesterday at age 77. Jenkins had been living on Sado Island with his wife Hitomi Soga, who was also a former prisoner of North Korea. Jenkins lived in North Korea for almost 40 years before being allowed to leave to live out his life in exile on Sado Island, but who was Charles Jenkins, and why did he defect to North Korea?

Charles Robert Jenkins was born in Rich Square, North Carolina, in February 1940. Jenkins enlisted in the National Guard when he was just 15-years-old and joined the regular army in 1958, enlisting in the 1st Cavalry Division. Jenkins served tours in Germany and South Korea, and it was during his second tour of duty in South Korea that he defected to North Korea.

Jenkins was used by the North Korean regime to promote anti-American propaganda but later claimed that he had not intended to defect and that he had been held as a prisoner. Earlier this year, Charles Jenkins told the Los Angeles Times that he deserted his unit in an elaborate scheme to get himself out of the army.

Jenkins claimed that his unit’s nighttime patrols along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea were provocative and were likely to get them killed. Jenkins also feared being sent to fight in Vietnam and decided that desertion was his only option. Jenkins was suffering from depression and was drinking heavily. He was drunk when he decided to cross the demilitarized zone and surrender to North Korean forces on the other side of the border. Jenkins hoped that he would be sent to Russia and be returned to the U.S. in one of the prisoner exchanges that were common during the Cold War.

Charles Robert Jenkins North Korea defector dies
Featured image credit: Sadayuki MikamiAP Images

Jenkins plans went awry from the moment he arrived in North Korea. Instead of being sent to Russia, Jenkins was held in a small room with three other American military defectors. Jenkins revealed that they were forced to speak Korean and learned by reciting the writings of North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il Sung. Jenkins and the others were beaten by their North Korean captors when they slipped up.

When Jenkins did manage to escape to the Russian Embassy, he was refused asylum and returned to the North Korean authorities. As reported by the Washington Post, Jenkins was given North Korean citizenship in 1972 and was used to teach English in a North Korean military academy. Jenkins met his wife, Hitomi Soga when she was delivered to him by his North Korean minders. Soga had been kidnapped from Sado Island and taken to North Korea when she was just 18-years-old. The two married in 1980 just five weeks after meeting; they had two daughters, Roberta and Brinda Jenkins.

As reported by NPR, Jenkins was released from North Korea in 2004. Jenkins immediately surrendered to the U.S. military, saying that he wanted to put his conscience to rest. He was court-martialed and pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and aiding the enemy. He was sentenced to 30 days in military prison, dishonorably discharged, and forfeiture of all pay and benefits.

After his release, Jenkins and his family settled on Sado Island where he remained until his death earlier this week. Jenkins described life in North Korea as like living in a “giant, demented prison,” and said that he regretted what he described as the “biggest mistake” of his life. In 2008, Jenkins released a book, The Reluctant Communist, in which he described his desertion and his life in North Korea.