We all do stupid things when we’re drunk, but among bad decisions, this one deserves special distinction: on the night of January 4, 1965, U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins pounded 10 beers, deserted his infantry company at the edge of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, walked alone across a minefield, and defected to North Korea. He was thrown into a chilly, spartan house (he tried, unsuccessfully, to leave) and forced to study the works of the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung for 11 hours every day. By 1972, he could recite Kim’s core principles by heart in Korean. That year, he was forcibly naturalized as a North Korean citizen. He went on to work as an English teacher, a translator, and an actor, under 24-hour surveillance and conditions of near-starvation.
All told, Jenkins would spend nearly 40 years in North Korea, a state that he says bred foreigners like animals, for the purpose of recruiting their ethnically ambiguous offspring for espionage. He himself had two daughters by Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman whom North Korean agents kidnapped in 1978, apparently to enslave her as a teacher of Japanese language and customs for North Korean spies. Soga, who is 19 years Jenkins’s junior, was freed in 2002 when Kim Jong Il attempted détente with Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi personally ensured that Jenkins and their daughters, Mika and Brinda, now 30 and 28, could join her. After Jenkins finally left North Korea in 2004, at age 64, the U.S. Army threw him in the stockade for 24 days and discharged him dishonorably. But since then he has lived a quiet life on Sado, his wife’s home island, a speck in the Sea of Japan that has served historically as a Japanese Elba, a secluded site for the exile of political undesirables.