Charles Robert Jenkins

Charles Robert Jenkins ((1940-02-18)18 February 1940 – (2017-12-11)11 December 2017) was a United States Army deserter, North Korean prisoner, and voice for Japanese abductees in North Korea.

Charles Robert Jenkins
A candid photo of a white man in a woodland-camoflauge US Army uniform; he is looking downward and to the left of the camera
SGT Jenkins in September 2004
Born(1940-02-18)18 February 1940
Died11 Dec. 2017 (2017-12-12) (aged 77)
Other names"Super"
  • Soldier
  • merchant
Criminal charges
Criminal penalty25 days imprisonment
(m. 1980)
ChildrenTwo daughters
Military career
AllegianceUnited States
RankPrivate (from Sergeant)
Known forDesertion to North Korea

It was a fear of combat and possible service in the Vietnam War that led then-Sergeant Jenkins to abandon his patrol and walk across the Korean Demilitarized Zone in January 1965. Instead of being sent to the Soviet Union and then traded back to the US, Jenkins was held captive in North Korea for over 39 years. While held prisoner, Jenkins was tortured, forced to wed a captured Japanese national, and performed in North Korean propaganda videos.

With improved Japanese–North Korean relations, Jenkins was allowed to travel to Japan and flee the communist Korean state in 2004. After reporting to Camp Zama that September, Jenkins was court-martialed and served 25 days in the brig at United States Fleet Activities Yokosuka. Until his death in 2017, Jenkins lived in his wife's childhood Sado home with her and their two daughters, wrote a book about his experiences in North Korea, worked in a local museum, and was treated like a celebrity by the Japanese.

Personal lifeEdit

On (1940-02-18)18 February 1940, Charles Robert Jenkins was born in Rich Square, North Carolina.[1] Jenkins dropped out of the seventh grade soon after the death of his father in the mid-1950s.[2] In 2004, Jenkins' younger sister (Pat Harrell)[3] and his mother (Pattie Casper; born in 1912 or 1913) still lived in the state.[4] Casper died in Rich Square at age 94, and was buried by Jenkins.[5]

US ArmyEdit

Jenkins in a 1950s US Army photo

Lacking a high school diploma,[6] Jenkins enlisted in the Army National Guard from 1955 through April 1958. After his honorable discharge from the Guard,[2] he enlisted in the active-duty United States Army that same year[7][8] as a light weapons infantryman. First stationed at Fort Hood, Jenkins next volunteered to deploy with the 7th Infantry Division to South Korea[9] from August 1960 through September 1961; while there, he was promoted to sergeant.[2] After briefly returning to the US, Jenkins was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany until 1964.[9] That year, he volunteered for a second deployment to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).[4]


On 5 January 1965, 24-year-old Sergeant Jenkins was stationed at the DMZ with the Army's 8th Cavalry Regiment[10] when he decided to desert the United States Armed Forces; he was being ordered to lead "more aggressive, provocative patrols", and there were rumors that his unit would be sent to Vietnam.[4] After drinking ten beers to build his courage,[5] Jenkins went on patrol with his squad. At 2:30am, after telling the other three men that "he heard a noise", Jenkins disappeared into the night approximately ten kilometres (6.2 mi) south of Panmunjom.[10] To show his peaceful intentions, he removed the rounds from[8] his M14 rifle, and tied a white t-shirt to the muzzle before walking for several cold hours towards North Korea.[11] He had planned to claim asylum with the Soviet Union and then return to the US for discharge and punishment via a prisoner exchange.[12][13] He was instead held prisoner in North Korea for 39.51 years.[4]

The Army declared Jenkins a defector based on four letters that he left behind in his barracks; one, addressed to his mother, read: "Forgive me, for I know what I must do. Tell my family I love them. Love, Charles." Jenkins' family disputed this determination because he "always either signed letters 'Robert' or used his nickname 'Super'." In 1996, Jenkins was reclassified by the US military as a deserter.[10] Jenkins' nephew, James Hyman, was a decades-long strident defendant of the theory that his uncle had been kidnapped by North Koreans.[11]

Jenkins would later tell Professor Robert Boynton (of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute) "that he had been a double-agent, sent to North Korea by the U.S. to spy on them". Boynton disbelieved Jenkins' claim, calling it "his attempt to maintain some dignity, and prove he wasn’t just a hapless sap who made a life-altering mistake."[14]

In North KoreaEdit

Jenkins was initially housed with fellow US deserters Larry Allen Abshier, James Joseph Dresnok, and Jerry Wayne Parrish.[4] The American men fought amongst themselves, with Jenkins later describing the 6-foot-4-inch (1.93 m) Dresnok as a bully who informed on the others to their captors.[8] Three weeks after his desertion, North Korean radio announced that Jenkins had defected for a "better life" there.[10] In 1966, the four men attempted escape by seeking asylum at the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang, but were unsuccessful.[15]

During his imprisonment in North Korea, Jenkins was made to memorize Kim Il-sung's writings and work for the communist state as an English teacher and translator.[14] Jenkins' lessons in American English lasted until 1985 when it was decided that his pronounced Southern accent was more a hindrance than not.[8]

In 1972, the four US servicemen in North Korea were given their own homes and declared citizens, though their "constant surveillance, beatings and torture" continued.[13] During the North Korean famine that killed millions of North Koreans, as an asset for propaganda, Jenkins and his family still received rations of clothing, insect-infested rice, and soap.[8] In their 2004 testimony, Jenkins and Soga told the US Army about their living accommodations in North Korea—or lack thereof. While heat, warm water, and food were scarce, the omnipresent state surrounded them and their home with barbed wire, hidden microphones, and "political supervisors".[3] By the time he left, Jenkins was receiving from the North Korean government a monthly income of US$120 (equivalent to $172.16 in 2021), and his daughters were enrolled at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies,[11] possibly for training to infiltrate South Korea.[11][9]

Soga in 2018

In 1978, Hitomi Soga (born in 1958 or 1959)[4] was a Japanese student nurse in Sado, Niigata when she and her mother were kidnapped by North Korean agents and taken to their country to train more agents there.[14] At the direction of the North Korean government, the 21-year-old Soga was assigned to Jenkins in 1980, and they were married weeks later[4] on 8 August.[10] They had two daughters: Mika (born in 1983) and Brinda (born in 1985). An interviewer of Jenkins would later tell The Japan Times that Jenkins' relationship with Soga was remarkable: Jenkins said "several times that she was the best thing that had ever happened to him […] 'She saved my life,' he told me. I suspect he was right."[14] After their release from North Korea in the early 2000s, Jenkins offered to dissolve their marriage, as it had been imposed upon them; Soga declined.[4]


In 1978, production began on the 20-film series Unsung Heroes which tells the North Korean version of the Korean War and its antecedents. Jenkins was made to play Dr. Kelton, a capitalist warmonger who endeavored to extend the war to benefit the US arms industry. These films made Jenkins a celebrity; he was recognized on the street as "Dr. Kelton!" (Korean: « 켈튼 박사! », romanized"Kelton Bac-Sa!") and made to sign autographs.[6] One of these films was delivered to Jenkins' family in 1997—their first sight of Jenkins since his desertion.[4]

In June 2020, Romano Kristoff recalled working with Jenkins in North Korea on 1988's Ten Zan: The Ultimate Mission, when the latter man was cast in the villainous role of Professor Larson,[16] though Johannes Schönherr's 2012 book, North Korean Cinema: A History, instead credits a Charles Borromel in the role.[17] Jenkins' last North Korean film was in 2000, about the communists' capture of USS Pueblo (AGER-2),[6] portraying a US aircraft carrier captain.[7] His celebrity status as an alleged-defector-turned-movie-star also afforded him greater social cachet as a state prize, allowing him to see Soviet dignitaries and diplomats who piteously slipped him materials and information from outside the Korean state.[18]


Due to the 2002 Japan–North Korea Pyongyang Declaration, Soga was allowed to leave for Japan on 15 October[10] for ten days; she did not return to North Korea.[13] The government of Japan even petitioned the US to pardon Jenkins, hoping Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi could bring back the American and his daughters after a May diplomatic trip.[19] Ultimately, they refused to leave; because of the U.S.–Japan Status of Forces Agreement, he still faced court-martial if he traveled to Japan—because the statute of limitations for desertion was 40 years (5 January 2005)—and possible capital punishment.[10]

Instead, Pyongyang eventually permitted Jenkins to fly to Soekarno–Hatta International Airport in Indonesia where they reunited with Soga[13] and the Japanese government promised residency for the whole family.[14] After his release from North Korea, Jenkins was 1.65 metres (5 ft 5 in) tall,[2] and only weighed 100 pounds (45 kg),[5] having lost his appendix, one testicle, and part of a US Army tattoo (cut off without anesthetic) to North Korea. Of the four 1960s deserters to North Korea, he was the only one to ever leave.[13] Upon arrival in Japan from Indonesia, Jenkins spent a month in the hospital at Tokyo Women's Medical University[2] to recover from prostate surgery complications (performed in North Korea before he left).[11]


United States v. Jenkins
USARJ shoulder insignia
CourtUnited States Army, Japan
Decided3 November 2004
Court membership
Judge(s) sittingColonel Denise Vowell

On 11 September 2004, he presented himself to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Nigara at Camp Zama, saying with a salute, "Sir, I'm Sergeant Jenkins and I'm reporting".[13] Jenkins' court-martial began and ended on 3 November 2004.[3] He was the longest-missing deserter to return to the US military.[7][8]

Represented by Captain James D. Culp,[2] Jenkins' single-day court-martial (United States v. Jenkins) was convened by United States Army, Japan on 3 November 2004. Colonel Denise Vowell was judge for the bench trial. In accordance with his pre-trial agreement,[9] Jenkins pled guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy (the latter for teaching English in North Korea).[13] Vowell sentenced him to "six months' confinement, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and a dishonorable discharge." Major General Elbert N. Perkins, the general court-martial convening authority, changed the confinement to 30 days, and approved the remainder of the sentence,[9] to be in the brig at United States Fleet Activities Yokosuka (where, Captain King H. Dietriech assured reporters, "there will be no special treatment for Private Jenkins.")[3]

Jenkins spent only 25 days in the brig; he was released early for good conduct[13] on 27 November 2004. Having waived "his post-trial and appellate rights," Jenkins' demotion and dishonorable discharge were executed on 18 July 2005.[9]

SGT Jenkins at court-martial

BBC News reported that Jenkins may have received only the 30-day sentence because of the intelligence he provided the US.[13] In 2009, Jenkins told Vice that in addition to receiving a sergeant's salary while in prison[18]—a monthly rate of $2,367.90 (equivalent to $3,397 in 2021)[20]—he spent his time working with military intelligence. According to Jenkins, the sentence was "all a big set-up for the outside world so it looked like justice was done. After all, I betrayed my country and people wanted to see me get punished for that – but I was just helping the government with what I knew. They just gave me the shortest sentence possible with a week off for good behaviour so it didn’t seem like I was let off the hook."[18]

Civilian lifeEdit

After his release from prison, Jenkins lived with his family in Soga's Sado childhood home. In Sado, free from North Korea, that nation was still a part of Jenkins' everyday life. He continued to fear that agents of Kim Jong-il would retaliate against him in Japan, he couldn't eat sashimi out of fear it would make him sick from the memories, and he was more fluent in Korean than English. To record what he remembered and experienced, Jenkins published a memoir in 2008: The Reluctant Communist.[5] In Japan, Jenkins fostered an interest in motorcycling; he was featured on the cover of Mr. Bike, a Japanese motorcycle-enthusiast magazine.[18]

The Japanese Ministry of Justice expedited Jenkins' application for permanent residency, which was awarded on 15 July 2008.[21][22] Jenkins worked in Sado selling senbei at a local museum.[14] Treated like a celebrity, he frequently posed for photographs with Japanese patrons, at times up to 300 per hour.[5] In Japan, he was credited with helping bring global attention to the North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens.[14]

On 11 December 2017, Jenkins collapsed outside his Sado home, and later died of cardiovascular disease.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Ramzy, Austin (12 December 2017). "Charles Jenkins, 77, U.S. Soldier Who Regretted Fleeing to North Korea, Dies". The New York Times. p. 12. ISSN 1553-8095. OCLC 1645522. Archived from the original on 12 March 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Kirk, Jeremy (1 September 2004). "Four Decades in North Korea". Far Eastern Economic Review. Tokyo. ISSN 0014-7591. Archived from the original on 2 September 2004. Retrieved 27 August 2022. One cold night in 1965, Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins disappeared from a patrol in South Korea. Forty years later he has resurfaced. In his first interview since leaving North Korea, he tells the Review his story
  3. ^ a b c d Brooke, James (4 November 2004). "G.I. Deserter Tells of Cold, Hungry Times in North Korea". The New York Times. Camp Zama. p. A3. ISSN 0362-4331. OCLC 1645522. Archived from the original on 18 July 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Schorn, Daniel; Pelley, Scott (23 October 2005). "Deserter Recalls N. Korean Hell". 60 Minutes. CBS News. Archived from the original on 17 March 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2022. Charles Jenkins Shares His Story Of A Hard Life Under Abusive Regime
  5. ^ a b c d e Glionna, John M. (16 July 2009). "Second life of GI who deserted to North Korea". Los Angeles Times. Sado, Niigata. ISSN 2165-1736. OCLC 3638237. Archived from the original on 17 July 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2022.
  6. ^ a b c Fowler, Simon (November 2015). "The US defectors who became film stars in North Korea". BBC. Archived from the original on 8 May 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2022. In 1965, US soldier Charles Robert Jenkins left South Korea for the North – and he went on to become a star in the Hermit Kingdom. Simon Fowler recounts his strange tale.
  7. ^ a b c Schoenfeld, Gabriel (13 March 2008). "To Hell and Back". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 1042-9840. OCLC 781541372. Archived from the original on 25 August 2015. Retrieved 27 August 2022.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Lusher, Adam (12 December 2017). "Torture, brainwashing and movie stardom: The extraordinary life of Charles Jenkins, the US soldier who defected to North Korea". The Independent. ISSN 1741-9743. OCLC 185201487. Archived from the original on 9 November 2020. Retrieved 27 August 2022. 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
  9. ^ a b c d e f Borch III, Fred L. (2021). "Stranger than Fiction: The GI Who Fled to North Korea for Forty Years". The Army Lawyer (1). Archived from the original on 27 August 2022. Retrieved 27 August 2022.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Curtin, J Sean (5 June 2004). "The strange saga of Charles Robert Jenkins". Asia Times. Japan. Archived from the original on 5 October 2007. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  11. ^ a b c d e Frederick, Jim (13 December 2004). "The Long Mistake". Time. Camp Zama. ISSN 0040-781X. OCLC 1311479. In a TIME exclusive, American defector Charles Jenkins talks about his life inside North Korea
  12. ^ a b "Charles Jenkins: US soldier who defected to North Korea dies". BBC News. 12 December 2017. Archived from the original on 4 August 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2022. A former US sergeant who defected to North Korea and became Pyongyang's prisoner for nearly 40 years has died.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i Seales, Rebecca (14 December 2017). "How forced marriage saved a US defector in North Korea". BBC News. Archived from the original on 30 April 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2022. Every night before going to bed, US defector Charles Jenkins turned to Hitomi Soga, the woman North Korea had forced him to marry, and kissed her three times.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Johnston, Eric (12 December 2017). "Charles Jenkins, U.S. defector to North Korea and husband of former Japanese abductee Hitomi Soga, dies at 77". The Japan Times. Osaka. ISSN 0447-5763. OCLC 21225620. Archived from the original on 13 May 2019. Retrieved 19 March 2022.
  15. ^ Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 7 February 2014, archived from the original on 22 June 2019, retrieved 19 March 2022
  16. ^ Kristoff, Romano (June 2020). "Entretien avec Romano Kristoff". Nanarland (Interview). Interviewed by Nada, John. Archived from the original on 17 July 2022. Retrieved 27 August 2020.
  17. ^ Schönherr, Johannes (2012). "Ten Zan, an Italian Coproduction: Ferdinando Baldi's Ultimate Mission". North Korean Cinema: A History. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 175–184. ISBN 978-0-7864-6526-2.
  18. ^ a b c d Hoban, Alex (22 September 2009). "All Slammer, No Glamour: The Reluctant North Korean Film Star". Vice. ISSN 1077-6788. OCLC 30856250. Archived from the original on 4 May 2021. Retrieved 27 August 2022. As far as strange and unusual punishment goes, being forced to be a film star rates highly.
  19. ^ "Japan asks U.S. to pardon abductee's American husband". The Japan Times. 16 May 2004. ISSN 0447-5763. OCLC 21225620. Archived from the original on 16 February 2011. Retrieved 27 August 2022.
  20. ^ "BASIC PAY—EFFECTIVE JANUARY 1, 2004" (PDF). Defense Finance and Accounting Service. 1 January 2004. p. 1. Archived (PDF) from the original on 28 June 2022. Retrieved 27 August 2022.
  21. ^ ジェンキンスさんに永住許可「死ぬまでここにいたい」 [Permission for permanent residence to Mr. Jenkins: 'I want to stay here until I die.']. Yomiuri Shimbun (in Japanese). 15 July 2008. Archived from the original on 24 February 2009. Retrieved 27 August 2022.
  22. ^ "Jenkins gets permanent residency". The Japan Times. Niigata. Kyodo News. 6 July 2008. ISSN 0447-5763. OCLC 21225620. Archived from the original on 13 December 2017. Retrieved 27 August 2022.

Further readingEdit

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