The U.S. Soldier Who Defected to North Korea

... and now lives in Japan selling crackers

John Cuneo

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.

When I met Jenkins, his top priority was to sell me senbei, light-brown honey-flavored crackers. He is employed by a historical museum, where he wears a yellow kimono-like jacket called a happi and hawks cracker boxes to tourists in the gift shop. “You must be Mr. Jenkins,” I said to him, and he responded affirmatively in a hillbilly drawl, a legacy of his dirt-poor childhood in rural North Carolina. Like the Japanese tourists who flock to see him, I found his diminutive, jug-eared appearance endearing, and bought a box of crackers immediately. A minute later, he told me he’d sent a box of senbei to his military lawyer, a Texan. “He told me it was the awfulest cookie he ever tasted,” Jenkins said.

The Japanese consider Jenkins and Soga’s story a great modern romance: two people find love under Orwellian conditions, and through mutual devotion win their freedom. When visitors stroll into the shop, they whisper to each other (“Jenkins-san!”) and stare at Jenkins until he beckons them to pose for a picture. “Photo” is one of the few words he knows in Japanese—he speaks Korean at home.

That Tuesday, his day off, Jenkins drove me around the island, which, like much of rural Japan, is beautifully manicured and eerily vacant, its tidy alleys prowled by well-fed cats. He and Soga live with their daughters near the very alley where, more than three decades ago, Soga was snatched by North Korean agents. North Korea is never far from his mind: if you mention juche—the infamous pillar of North Korean ideology—in his presence, his eyes instantly glaze over as he lapses into a robotic Korean recitation of its principles, memorized syllable by compulsory syllable in the 1960s and ’70s.

Come lunchtime, we stopped at a local restaurant for pizza (easily the worst I have ever had, but after years of weevil-infested rice rations, Jenkins savors any taste of America). As we ate, I posed various questions that a Japanese journalist had told me everyone in Tokyo longed to ask: Was North Korea’s new ruler, Kim Jong Un—the third son of the late bouffant strongman Kim Jong Il—plotting war on Japan? Were there more abductees? Did Jenkins have more secrets?

About Kim Jong Un, Jenkins could offer little insight. No one had ever heard of him before a few years ago, Jenkins said, and the speed of his ascent—he is thought to be just 29 or 30; no one knows for sure—makes Jenkins suspect that he is a puppet of the military leadership. When I asked how Jenkins could know anything about the inner workings of the North Korean military, he said that he had worked at the military university, and as a white man he’d been, oddly enough, highly trusted, because he was too conspicuous to have any hope of escaping the country. “We trust Jenkins more than we trust you!” he recalls one general saying to a military visitor. (Jenkins added that he had only once been in the same room with the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, who snorted disapproval at Jenkins’s Korean dress and ordered him and other Westerners to never again sully Korean clothing. Jenkins wore a suit and tie thereafter.)

As for other abductees, Jenkins said he believed North Korea had kidnapped many foreigners, not all of them Japanese. When the French ambassador to Japan visited Jenkins on Sado to inquire about the possibility of French kidnapping victims, Jenkins described a French woman he’d met—one of several foreign nationals he says he encountered on movie sets in Pyongyang. Such foreigners had special license plates on their cars, Jenkins told me, and lacked any apparent motive for having migrated from rich, free countries to a poor, unfree one.

Perhaps most intriguing, Jenkins said that he had heard reports of a work crew of captive white men, whom he believed to be American prisoners of war. For many years, rumors circulated that American POWs from the Korean War remained in North Korea, but Jenkins said he understood the captives to be younger POWs, from the Vietnam War, sent by the North Vietnamese to Pyongyang as thanks for North Korean assistance during the war. He said that he thought they had been imprisoned at a “model farm” called Chongsan-ri. What North Korea would want with a work crew of American men is not obvious—the country has plenty of indigenous labor. The greater goal of assembling a menagerie of captive Westerners, Jenkins thinks, was to breed them. They would be mated with each other, their children raised as loyal North Koreans who could serve as spies overseas.

Jenkins is one of four American soldiers to defect to North Korea after the Korean War. The others—only one of whom, a burly Virginian named James Joseph Dresnok, is still alive and in North Korea—married a series of other foreigners, including a Lebanese woman and a Romanian woman. Some of the children from these unions attended Pyongyang’s diplomatic academy. One defector, Larry Abshier, married a young Thai woman, Anocha Panjoy, who had been working in a Macau bathhouse when she disappeared in 1978; she almost certainly was abducted. After Abshier suffered a fatal heart attack in 1983, Panjoy married a German man who traveled internationally as a paid agent of North Korea, according to Jenkins. He alluded darkly to a larger set of such foreigners who work as North Korean agents abroad, presumably with their families and loved ones kept in Pyongyang as collateral. “If I had stayed in North Korea,” Jenkins said, “my daughters would be in South Korea right now as spies.”

Much of this sounded far-fetched, I thought as we left the restaurant and drove back to Jenkins’s house in his boxy Subaru. (When I later asked Andrei Lankov, a prominent Russian expert on East Asia who spent a year studying in North Korea, what he made of Jenkins’s allegations, he was dryly skeptical. “So little is known about North Korea [that] people take seriously even the most outrageous stories,” he replied.) I wanted to ask Jenkins: Wasn’t the idea of a spy-breeding program so insanely evil, as well as impractical, that even North Korea wouldn’t bother with it? Then again, I reminded myself, the story of Jenkins’s wife’s kidnapping was itself insanely evil and impractical—and true. My lunch companion knew North Korean evil more intimately than I ever would.

Which led me to a final question. Just as Americans viewed Jenkins as a defector from their side, so now do the North Koreans see him as a defector from theirs. Did he think they would ever come after him, either to reclaim a citizen or assassinate a traitor?

“I put it like this,” Jenkins said. “Usually I don’t go out at night.”