It’s still dif­fi­cult to es­cape hold of North Korea

U.S. Army de­serter was freed in ’04, but the coun­try that kept him for 40 years seems as close as ever

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Jonathan Kaiman jonathan.kaiman@la­

SADO IS­LAND, Japan — Charles Robert Jenk­ins de­serted the U.S. Army on a freez­ing night in Jan­uary 1965. He pounded 10 beers to quiet his nerves and aban­doned his pa­trol unit along the bor­der di­vid­ing South and North Korea — a 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide strip of mine-rid­den no man’s land.

He un­loaded his M-16 rif le to show the en­emy he meant no harm; he raised his knees high to avoid trig­ger­ing trip­wires. Sev­eral hours later, he crossed into North Korea.

He didn’t leave for nearly 40 years.

Now, Jenk­ins — 77 but look­ing much older, with a deep-lined face and dis­tant ex­pres­sion — lives a quiet life on Sado, a small, pas­toral is­land in the Sea of Japan. He speaks in the thick South­ern ac­cent of his North Carolina child­hood, and the sto­ries he tells, 13 years af­ter the end of his North Korean ad­ven­ture, re­call decades of soli­tude, de­pri­va­tion and tor­ture.

“In North Korea, I lived a dog’s life,” he said in a rare in­ter­view as he drove his boxy Subaru through Sado Is­land’s rice pad­dies and sleepy vil­lages. “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.”

Jenk­ins works now as a greeter in Mano Park, a placid tourist at­trac­tion on the Ja­panese is­land, sell­ing sen­bei, a type of rice cracker. Tourists see him and squeal with de­light — “Jenk­inssan!” — as he pas­sively poses for pho­tos.

But North Korea some­how feels as close as ever. The tele­vi­sion news car­ries a con­stant drum­beat of sto­ries: Py­ongyang’s in­creas­ingly ad­vanced mis­sile tests, and nu­clear threats; the death of Otto Warm­bier, a 22-year-old Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dent, af­ter 17 months in North Korean cus­tody; the assassination of ruler Kim Jong Un’s half brother in a Malaysian air­port.

They all carry echoes of the one in­con­tro­vert­ible les­son he learned as a guest of the North Korean gov­ern­ment for four decades. “I don’t put noth­ing past North Korea,” Jenk­ins said. “North Korea could do any­thing. North Korea don’t care.”

‘I was not think­ing clearly at the time’

Six Amer­i­can sol­diers de­fected to North Korea af­ter the Korean War. Most were un­happy in the Army; most had trou­bled pasts.

In 1965, Jenk­ins was a U.S. Army sergeant posted to South Korea. But he was un­happy with his as­sign­ment and wor­ried it could get worse. He feared his unit’s night­time pa­trols along the bor­der were too provoca­tive and would get them killed; he feared he’d be sent to die in Viet­nam. He got de­pressed, be­gan drink­ing heav­ily and made a de­ci­sion that he’d re­gret for the rest of his life: to go AWOL.

If he aban­doned his troops and sneaked off in South Korea, he’d be found im­me­di­ately. But de­fect­ing to the North, he thought, was a gam­ble — per­haps he could seek asy­lum at the Rus­sian Em­bassy and be re­turned to the U.S. in a prisoner swap. Rus­sia, he fig­ured, was the cen­ter of the Com­mu­nist world, and he’d read of U.S. sol­diers in West Ger­many do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar.

“I know I was not think­ing clearly at the time, and a lot of my de­ci­sions don’t make sense now, but at the time they had a logic to them that made my ac­tions seem al­most in­evitable,” Jenk­ins re­called in his mem­oir, “The Re­luc­tant Com­mu­nist: My De­ser­tion, Court-Mar­tial, and Forty-Year Im­pris­on­ment in North Korea.”

Late one night in Jan­uary 1965, Jenk­ins aban­doned his unit and walked across the bor­der, known as the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone. As day broke, he saw a guard stand­ing near a guard post beyond an elec­tri­fied, barbed-wire fence. Jenk­ins yelled; the guard turned and his eyes widened, al­most car­toon­ishly. Within mo­ments, Jenk­ins was sur­rounded by eight to 10 North Korean guards, their ri­fles drawn. They grabbed him by the arms and hauled him into the guard post.

From then on, al­most noth­ing would go ac­cord­ing to plan.

For eight years, the North Korean gov­ern­ment held him in a spar­tan room with three other Amer­i­can de­fec­tors — Jerry Wayne Par­rish, 19; Larry Ab­shier, 19; and James Dres­nok, 21. Au­thor­i­ties forced them to mem­o­rize ide­o­log­i­cal tomes by Kim Il Sung, the coun­try’s founder-pres­i­dent, and beat them when they slipped up. Bit by bit, they learned to speak Korean. Their re­la­tion­ships be­gan to fray — Jenk­ins and Dres­nok didn’t get along — and when their North Korean min­ders weren’t beat­ing them, they of­ten got in fist­fights them­selves.

In 1966, the four Amer­i­cans es­caped their min­ders, ducked into the Rus­sian Em­bassy in Py­ongyang and re­quested asy­lum. The Rus­sians turned them down, and Jenk­ins had a sud­den, dread­ful re­al­iza­tion: “I’d never get out of North Korea. And more than likely I’d be there till I died.”

In 1972, the North Korean gov­ern­ment de­clared them cit­i­zens, gave them sep­a­rate homes and, for the next sev­eral years, forced them into odd jobs. Mainly, the four men served as ac­tors play­ing evil Amer­i­cans in pro­pa­ganda pro­duc­tions; they taught English at a mil­i­tary academy.

In 1980, Jenk­ins ac­quired a wife: North Korean au­thor­i­ties moved a 21-year-old Ja­panese woman into his home. Weeks later, he and Hit­omi Soga, who had been ab­ducted from Japan two years ear­lier, were mar­ried. Even­tu­ally, buoyed by their mu­tual ha­tred of North Korea, they fell in love.

“I knew how badly my wife missed Japan, and so 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,” he said.

They had two daugh­ters: Mika, now 34; and Brinda, now 32. Gen­er­ally, their lives were bet­ter than those of or­di­nary North Ko­re­ans. In the 1990s, as famine gripped the coun­try, the gov­ern­ment gave Jenk­ins and his fam­ily rice, soap, cloth­ing and cig­a­rettes ev­ery month. “I got put on ra­tions,” Jenk­ins re­called. “A reg­u­lar Korean got none.” Across the coun­try, mil­lions of peo­ple starved to death.

Still, he de­spaired. The cig­a­rettes were painful to smoke, and the rice was full of bugs. One day, a gov­ern­ment agent tied him up and in­structed Dres­nok, who lived in a neigh­bor­ing house and also acted in pro­pa­ganda films, to beat him un­til his teeth pro­truded from his lips. He said Dres­nok seemed to en­joy it. An­other time, an of­fi­cial no­ticed a U.S. Army tat­too on his arm and or­dered Jenk­ins to a hos­pi­tal, where a doc­tor cut it off with­out anes­thetic.

Cadres watched the pro­ce­dure and laughed as Jenk­ins screamed. “It was hell,” he re­called.

He tried, and of­ten failed, to form a men­tal map of how the coun­try worked. He came to sus­pect that the North Korean gov­ern­ment was train­ing his daugh­ters as spies and that North Korea had en­slaved dozens more Amer­i­cans — pris­on­ers in Viet­nam, sent by the North Viet­namese to Py­ongyang as gifts. He de­duced that high-rank­ing North Korean of­fi­cials seemed to main­tain lux­ury prop­er­ties in Switzer­land for use as refuges in case of a pop­u­lar up­ris­ing or mil­i­tary con­flict.

One day, he wit­nessed dogs dig­ging up a mass grave; soon after­ward, sol­diers killed all the dogs in the neigh­bor­hood.

He learned one thing for cer­tain: Frank con­ver­sa­tions about the coun­try’s con­di­tions could prove fa­tal. “You can’t bring your neigh­bor over for a drink,” he re­called. “Why? Peo­ple start drink­ing, they start talk­ing. Peo­ple dis­ap­pear. And when one doesn’t dis­ap­pear, they know he’s the one who squealed.”

‘I worry about my daugh­ters’

In 2002, ev­ery­thing changed. Kim Jong Il — Kim Il Sung’s son and suc­ces­sor — ad­mit­ted that North Korea had ab­ducted 13 Ja­panese cit­i­zens and an­nounced that five, in­clud­ing Soga, Jenk­ins’ wife, would be re­leased. In Japan, Soga’s story of her ro­mance with the Amer­i­can sol­dier be­came a me­dia sen­sa­tion — a twisted tale of star-crossed lovers — and two years later, in a diplo­matic high-wire act led by Japan’s then-prime min­is­ter, Ju­nichiro Koizumi, North Korea let Jenk­ins and their daugh­ters go.

The U.S. Army court­mar­tialed Jenk­ins for de­ser­tion, and he spent 25 days in a mil­i­tary pri­son.

“Char­lie’s story res­onated with me be­cause he en­dured some­thing that no­body here can even imag­ine,” said James Culp, a for­mer mil­i­tary at­tor­ney who de­fended Jenk­ins at his court-mar­tial. “He doesn’t have the … where­withal to fully ex­press the de­pri­va­tion and the tor­ment, day in and day out, of be­ing there and know­ing what the other side looks like — know­ing what civ­i­liza­tion looks like, know­ing what free­dom looks like.

“It’s worse than pri­son,” he said. “Be­cause in pri­son, at least you get the truth.”

Since Jenk­ins’ re­lease, he has lived in his wife’s home­town on Sado Is­land — a place so re­mote that it tra­di­tion­ally served as a place of ex­ile for dis­si­dents. They live in a small house not far from where Soga was snatched by North Korean agents. She works for a nearby nurs­ing home; their daugh­ter Mika, who lives at home, teaches at a kinder­garten. The other daugh­ter, Brinda, lives in the city of Ni­igata, an hour’s ferry ride from Sado Is­land.

Ab­shier died in North Korea of a heart at­tack in 1983, and Par­rish died of kid­ney dis­ease in 1998. Dres­nok died in 2016, though Jenk­ins hadn’t heard the news and said he didn’t care.

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

His U.S. pass­port ex­pired last year.

Jenk­ins spends hours a day watch­ing CNN and South Korean broad­casts. He wasn’t sur­prised when Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, suc­ceeded his fa­ther as North Korea’s ruler, and wasn’t sur­prised that he turned out to be equally bru­tal — and seem­ingly even more in­tent on de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons.

He said the coun­try’s strate­gic think­ing — and its cul­ture of re­pres­sive mil­i­tancy — are deeper-rooted than many Amer­i­cans be­lieve.

“The only way to get rid of this thing is if the whole gov­ern­ment goes,” Jenk­ins said. “To get rid of [Kim Jong Un] ain’t go­ing to do any­thing. The next guy is just go­ing to take over. That’s just the way they work.”

Two sto­ries hit him harder than most. One was the death of Warm­bier, the Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dent who died in North Korea in June. He had vis­ited the coun­try as a tourist. Au­thor­i­ties ac­cused him of steal­ing a pro­pa­ganda poster from his ho­tel and sen­tenced him to 15 years of hard la­bor. Later, they ex­plained that he fell into a coma af­ter con­tract­ing bot­u­lism and tak­ing a sleep­ing pill. Amer­i­can doc­tors have cast doubt on the ex­pla­na­tion, and the truth re­mains un­clear.

Jenk­ins was aghast that Amer­i­cans would visit North Korea as tourists. “It’s crazy,” he said. “North Korea will do any­thing to keep a for­eigner.” (The U.S. is in the process of ban­ning tourism to the coun­try.)

Yet he said North Korea’s med­i­cal sys­tem prob­a­bly con­trib­uted to Warm­bier’s death. Au­thor­i­ties there, he said, had forced Jenk­ins into sev­eral seem­ingly ar­bi­trary med­i­cal pro­ce­dures. “Had about five oper­a­tions,” he re­called, in­clud­ing hav­ing his ap­pen­dix re­moved.

Af­ter his re­lease, com­pli­ca­tions that de­vel­oped from two of the pro­ce­dures could have killed him — and likely would have, if Japan didn’t im­me­di­ately hos­pi­tal­ize him on his re­lease.

Then there was the ap­par­ent assassination of Kim Jong Nam — Kim Jong Un’s half brother — in a Malaysian air­port in Fe­bru­ary. Two women ambushed Kim Jong Nam with VX nerve agent, one of the world’s most toxic sub­stances. To Jenk­ins, it was a re­minder that Py­ongyang’s bru­tal­ity knows no bounds — and no one is im­mune.

“I worry about my daugh­ters more than any­thing,” he said as he drove his Subaru along the coast. He has for­bid­den them to com­ply if Ja­panese po­lice should at­tempt to pull them over while driv­ing. Any­one could be a North Korean agent.

“North Korea give them enough money, you don’t know what they’ll do,” he said. “North Korea wants me dead.”

Koichi Kamoshida Getty Im­ages

CHARLES ROBERT JENK­INS ar­rives in Tokyo with his wife, Hit­omi Soga, in 2004. Jenk­ins had been held in North Korea since 1965 af­ter aban­don­ing his U.S. Army unit in South Korea and head­ing north across the bor­der, a de­ci­sion he’d re­gret for the rest of his life.

Jonathan Kaiman Los An­ge­les Times

“IN NORTH KOREA, I lived a dog’s life,” Charles Robert Jenk­ins says. “Ain’t no­body live good in North Korea. Noth­ing to eat. No run­ning wa­ter. No elec­tric­ity.”

Jonathan Kaiman Los An­ge­les Times

JENK­INS lives a quiet life on Sado Is­land. He’d like to re­turn to the U.S., but his wife doesn’t want to go.


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