OSAKA – One night in early January 1965, U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, who was stationed in South Korea along the Demilitarized Zone, got drunk and decided he wanted out. The 24-year-old North Carolina native walked across the border and deserted to North Korea with the notion of making his way to the Soviet Union and eventually, he hoped, back to the U.S. to receive punishment.
Instead, Jenkins, who passed away Monday at age 77 on Sado Island, spent nearly 40 years in North Korea, a prisoner forced to memorize the works of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and then to work as an English teacher, translator and even propaganda film actor.
Jenkins might have died in North Korea and been forgotten by the outside world had it not been for his meeting Hitomi Soga in 1980. Soga, a nursing student at the time, and her mother were kidnapped by North Korean agents from their homes on Sado Island in 1978 as part of a program to train agents from the country in Japanese language and culture. Soga’s mother disappeared and was never heard from again, but Hitomi and Jenkins married. They had two daughters, Mika, born in 1983, and Brinda, born in 1985.
It was not until 2002 that North Korea admitted it had kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to Pyongyang, met North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and secured Soga’s release, along with two Japanese couples who had also been kidnapped, Yasushi and Fukie Chimura, from Fukui Prefecture, and Kaoru and Yukiko Hasuike, of Niigata Prefecture.
After the Japanese government assured Jenkins and his two daughters that they could live in Japan, they joined Soga in 2004. But the U.S. refused to grant Jenkins a pardon, with the army convicting him as a deserter. He was court-martialed, imprisoned and ultimately given a dishonorable discharge after serving less than 30 days in confinement.
Upon his release, he was allowed to live with his family on Sado Island. There, Jenkins worked selling senbei crackers at a local historical museum, where he was popular with Japanese visitors.
“I had a lot of affection for him. He always agreed to talk with me, never asked for money, and never complained about how his life had turned out,” said Robert Boynton, a professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and author of “The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project,” who interviewed Jenkins several times.
“At one point, he tried to convince me that he had been a double-agent, sent to North Korea by the U.S. to spy on them,” Boynton said in an email. “The idea was so absurd — he was just about the last person I’d ever send off on such a mission. I think it was his attempt to maintain some dignity, and prove he wasn’t just a hapless sap who made a life-altering mistake.”
Jenkins has been credited in Japan by abductee supporters with helping make the abductions of Japanese nationals more of a global issue. In recent years, the issue has even drawn the attention of U.S. leaders, including President Donald Trump.
But for many in the U.S., Jenkins is considered a traitor.
Boynton said he has always been puzzled by how ordinary Japanese were so fond of him, even as he added that he was struck by Jenkins’ devotion to Soga.
“He told me several times that she was the best thing that had ever happened to him,” Boynton said. ” ‘She saved my life,’ he told me. I suspect he was right.”