American Freed by N. Korea Relishes Celebrity in Japan
Sunday, April 6, 2008
SADO ISLAND, Japan -- Charles Robert Jenkins was planning a trip to the United States this spring to do "Larry King Live" and promote his book, but the tourist season on Sado Island is heating up.
So Jenkins decided to stay home, sell cookies and sign autographs. At 68, the former U.S. Army sergeant who defected to North Korea and lived as a captive in the curtained-off communist state for 40 years is a celebrity in Japan.
His Stalinist odyssey -- marriage to a Japanese woman who was abducted by North Korea and given to him one evening, her highly publicized release and their eventual reunion -- is household knowledge in this country. An impish man with big ears and a thick North Carolina drawl, he has done as many as 28 interviews in one day with the Japanese media. His autobiography, being published in the United States this spring as "The Reluctant Communist," has sold more than 300,000 copies in hardback in Japan.
"Everyone in Japan knows who I am," he said. "Even young girls come up and want to kiss me. I swear. And take the picture while doing it."
At age 24, while serving in South Korea, Jenkins drank 10 beers and stumbled northward across the world's most heavily militarized border. He surrendered his M-14 rifle to startled soldiers in North Korea.
"I was so ignorant," he recalled. He had deserted the Army for what became a self-imposed life sentence in a "giant, demented prison."
There, over the next four decades, he acted in propaganda movies and raised chickens. He taught English and made the Korean food staple kimchi. He memorized the teachings of President Kim Il Sung and killed rats that crawled out of his toilet.
After 15 years, his keepers delivered a lovely Japanese woman to his house and urged him to rape her. She had been kidnapped from Japan. Jenkins was gentle with her, she came to love him and they were married. They had two daughters who were in training to become multilingual Stalinist spies -- when something happened that was truly nutty.
North Korea let them go. His wife got out in 2002, he and his daughters in 2004.
An Issue of Raw Emotion
Trading on his celebrity, Jenkins now works as a glad-hander in the gift shop of a museum here on Sado Island.
Located off the west coast of Japan, Sado is a green, isolated isle of rice paddies and tall mountains. Historically, it is Japan's Elba. An emperor, a great Buddhist monk and the inventor of Noh theater were exiled here.
Sado is now a minor tourist destination -- and Jenkins has become one of its major attractions.