On a cold night in January 1965, United States soldier Charles Jenkins finally had seen enough of the military. In a moment of desperation, he decided to flee his post at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
Almost instantly after crossing into North Korea seeking asylum, however, Charles was captured. While being held prisoner there, he was subjected to relentless humiliation techniques and severe beatings from his captors. For a time, it seemed like he would surely die.
But then he met a woman who would ultimately change his life…
Charles Jenkins was born in 1940 in the small southern town of Rich Square, North Carolina. There, he was raised by a loving mother and father, and he led a completely normal and disciplined life.
As Charles reached adulthood, the United States had begun fighting the Vietnam War. It wasn’t long before he and many of the men from his community had enlisted or were drafted into the Army to serve.
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However, Charles was never sent to the front lines. Instead, he was stationed at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Little did he know, this role would forever change his life…
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On one night in January 1965, just before Charles’s 25th birthday, he became consumed by fear that he would either suffer a fatal gunshot wound on his post or be sent to Vietnam. He was so paranoid that he began to drink. Soon, he was drunk enough to convince himself to flee his post.
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Charles was well aware of the risk he was taking; if caught by the U.S. military, he faced spending his life in prison. Still, he decided it was worth the risk and he planned to travel into Russia via North Korea to seek political asylum.
While Charles most feared being caught by the U.S. military, it should’ve been the opposite. “I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison,” he wrote in his 2009 autobiography, Reluctant Communist.
Charles had no clue that his rash decision was about to change the next 40 years of his life. Once he made it into North Korea, he was instantly captured and placed in a room with three other American defectors: Larry Abshier, James Dresnok, and Jerry Parrish.
The four men were held captive in a cramped room without heating or electricity. They were forced to appear in North Korean propaganda films. Charles’s former comrades even received pamphlets that showed him living a rich life—but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
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Charles and the other prisoners were forced to endure 10-hour-long lessons about then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. It wasn’t until seven years later that the four men were even allowed to live in separate abodes.
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Yet, even when they were given a small amount of privacy, the men were still subjected to consistent torture and beatings. Not to mention, they were surveilled around the clock and required to teach English.
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For years, they were forced to make cameos in films produced by Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jon-il. These were made to garner praise from his father. In every film, the men were cast as evil Americans.
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Fifteen years after he was captured, Charles received orders informing him that he was to marry a bride whom the government had selected for him. He was 40 years old at that point; his bride, a Japanese nurse named Hitomi Soga, was only 21.
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When Charles first met Hitomi, he was stunned by her beauty. Soon he learned that she had been kidnapped in Japan two years prior. Once in North Korea, she was instructed to teach Japanese to would-be spies.
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Though their marriage had been arranged, Charles and Hitomi actually feel deeply in love. Eventually, the couple had two daughters: Brinda and Mika. Unfortunately, as the children grew, Charles began to feel as though they were being groomed to be turned into spies.
Finally, in 2002, Kim Jong-il—now the leader of North Korea—admitted that the government had kidnapped some 13 Japanese citizens over the course of several decades. To make amends, he permitted the five surviving citizens to come home for a 10-day visit.
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Hitomi was one of them. However, there was a stipulation: Charles and the children had to stay behind. Despite this, Hitomi decided to stay in Japan, hoping to find a way for her family to join her at a later date.
Since Charles had deserted his post in 1965, he was faced with the possibility of being extradited to prison if he followed his wife. Nevertheless, Charles decided that prison was worth the risk. So, with the North Korean government’s permission, he planned a trip to Indonesia with his daughters. Once there, he met Hitomi and her family and immediately fled to Japan.
Finally, Charles arrived at a U.S. base in Tokyo on September 11, 2004. As he approached, a military police officer greeted him. “Sir, I’m Sergeant Jenkins and I’m reporting,” Charles said to the officer. By that point, he’d been AWOL for about 40 years.
Shortly after, Charles pleaded guilty to desertion. For his crime, he was given a 30-day prison sentence, of which he served 25. His time in North Korea was incorporated into his sentencing. Once released, he and his family relocated to Sado Island, Japan, where he began selling crackers at a tourist attraction.
Sadly, on December 11, 2017, Charles passed away at the age of 77. While he was obviously a controversial figure for some time due to his desertion, there’s no doubting that he lived a fascinating life!
It’s crazy to think how one split decision projected the rest of Charles’s life. It might not have been what he planned, but he seemed content in the end! Thank goodness he was able to escape North Korea when he did.
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