After Defecting to North Korea, Charles Robert Jenkins Was Held Prisoner for Over 39 Years

Photo Credit: US Army / Getty Images
Photo Credit: US Army / Getty Images

Charles Robert Jenkins was an American soldier who defected to North Korea in 1965. Contrary to what it may seem, his plan was never to remain there. Despite this, he spent over 39 years of his life under the watchful eye of the regime, before returning to the United States in 2004.

Charles Robert Jenkins’ early life

Military portrait of Charles Robert Jenkins
Charles Robert Jenkins, 1950s. (Photo Credit: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Charles Robert Jenkins was born in North Carolina on February 18, 1940. He never graduated from high school, which limited his ability to get a job. This prompted him to enlist in the North Carolina National Guard from 1955-58. Following his discharge, he remained in the military, joining the US Army as a light weapons infantryman.

Jenkins volunteered to serve with the 7th Infantry Division in South Korea, beginning in August 1960. He was sent back to the US in September 1961 for a short period of time, before being deployed to West Germany with the 3rd Armored Division. In 1964, he volunteered for a second deployment to South Korea, serving in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This time around, he was assigned to the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division.

On January 5, 1965, Jenkins made a decision that forever changed the course of his life.

Deserting the US Army

Andrew Rogerson reviewing documents with Charles Robert Jenkins
Charles Robert Jenkins with Andrew Rogerson at Camp Zama, 2004. (Photo Credit: US Army / Getty Images)

Rumors had been swirling that Charles Robert Jenkins’ regiment was going to be deployed to Vietnam. This, compounded by increasingly aggressive patrols, led the sergeant to cross the DMZ into North Korea. He’d planned to claim asylum through the Soviets, who would then trade him back to the US during a prisoner exchange.

That fateful night, Jenkins put away 10 beers before going on patrol with his comrades. Around 2:30 AM, he told them he’d heard a noise and went to check it. This was when he made his great escape. As he approached the DMZ, he took the ammunition out of his M14 rifle and tied a white shirt to the top as a sign of peace.

He crossed over into North Korea, expecting to see the US again soon. Instead, he was held as a prisoner for 39 and a half years.

Housed with other defectors

Military portrait of James Joseph Dresnok
James Joseph Dresnok, 1960. (Photo Credit: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Under two weeks later, Charles Robert Jenkins’ defection was announced on North Korean radio, which stated his decision was “because of disgust with conditions in South Korea and that he believed life was better under the Communists.”

Jenkins was housed with three other American deserters: James Dresnok, Larry Abshier and Jerry Parrish. The conditions they lived in were horrible; they shared one room and were beaten when they failed to properly memorize the works of Kim Il-Sung.

While the four had decided to cross over into North Korea, they didn’t necessarily plan to stay there. In 1966, they attempted to follow Jenkins’ original plan and seek asylum through the Soviet embassy, but were unable to. Years later, they were declared citizens and given their own homes, jobs and, eventually, wives.

This didn’t, however, change their living conditions. Jenkins later wrote that he “suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings and mental torture to frequently make me wish I was dead.” Even when they were made “citizens,” they weren’t trusted. Their houses were bugged and surrounded by barbed wire to prevent escape. The men were also used in a series of propaganda films, where they played evil Americans, and Jenkins taught English classes to North Korean spies and servicemen.

Charles Robert Jenkins marries Hitomi Soga

Hitomi Soga sitting at a table
Hitomi Soga following her return to Japan, 2002. (Photo Credit: Kurita KAKU / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images)

In 1980, Charles Robert Jenkins was introduced to Hitomi Soga, a Japanese nurse who’d been kidnapped to serve as a teacher for spies. Theirs was a forced marriage, with the ceremony happening only a few weeks after they met. In the coming five years, they had two daughters, Mika and Brinda.

Despite having little choice in the arrangement, the two came to care for each other deeply, and it was thanks to Soga that Jenkins was finally able to leave North Korea. When the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration was signed in 2002, she was allowed to visit Japan for 10 days – and never returned. Instead, Soga worked with the Japanese government to help convince the US to pardon her husband. Her attempts were unsuccessful.

Had he followed her to Japan, Jenkins risked capital punishment for his desertion, as the statute of limitations was 40 years – he’d been gone for 39 and a half.

Charles Robert Jenkins is finally freed

Cameraman filming as Charles Robert Jenkins salutes Paul Nigara
Charles Robert Jenkins saluting Paul Nigara at Camp Zama, 2004. (Photo Credit: Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images)

Eventually, North Korea allowed Charles Robert Jenkins to leave, and he reunited with his wife in Indonesia. He was the only post-Korean War US defector to ever leave, and the evidence of his mistreatment was obvious. He was 100 pounds, had lost his appendix and a testicle, and part of his Army tattoo had been cut off without proper anesthesia.

Although Japan had promised Hitoma Soga, Jenkins and their daughters residency, there was still the matter of his court-martial. Jenkins arrived at Camp Zama, Japan, on September 11, 2004, where Lt. Col. Paul Nigara was waiting for him. Jenkins greeted him with a salute, saying, “Sir, I’m Sergeant Jenkins and I’m reporting.”

His trial wasn’t held until November 3, 2004, where he pleaded guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy by teaching English. He was initially sentenced to six months confinement, but this was later changed to 30 days. He also forfeited all his back pay, was demoted to the rank of private and received a dishonorable discharged.

Adapting to civilian life

Charles Robert Jenkins, Hitomi Soga and their two daughters, Brinda and Mika, standing with Yutaka Iimura
Charles Robert Jenkins, Hitomi Soga and their daughters at a dinner held by Japanese ambassador to Indonesia Yutaka Iimura, 2004. (Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images)

Despite the ruling, Charles Robert Jenkins was released on good behavior after 25 days. He was reportedly given pay for the time served. Jenkins said in an interview years later that the sentence was “all a big set-up for the outside world so it looked like justice was done.”

Once his time was served, Jenkins and his family moved back to his wife’s home. Although he’d escaped North Korea, he lived the rest of his life worried they’d come for him. He recounted his experience in a 2008 memoir, titled The Reluctant Communist.

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Jenkins lived out the rest of his life as a major celebrity in Japan, following his passion for motorcycling and working at a local museum. It wasn’t until December 11, 2017 that he passed away.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.