American Freed by N. Korea Relishes Celebrity in Japan

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.

Wearing a "happi" coat -- a bright yellow shopkeeper's vest with Japanese characters on it -- he sells sugar cookies seven hours a day, six days a week, shaking hands and posing for pictures with tourists.

His wife, Hitomi Soga, who is 20 years younger than Jenkins, grew up here on Sado and now works at city hall.

It was on this island on Aug. 12, 1978, when Soga was 18 years old, that three North Korean agents grabbed her at dusk, stuffed her in a black body bag and stole her away on a ship.

Fifteen years later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that his agents had abducted 13 Japanese, including Soga.

But there are eight other abductees who the Japanese government says were taken in the 1970s and 1980s and are still unaccounted for. It wants them back.

North Korea infuriated the Japanese by sending home the bones of abductees who supposedly had died -- bones that DNA testing found did not match any of the missing Japanese.

It is almost impossible to overstate the emotional power and political sensitivity of the abductee issue in Japan. The government bans all imports from North Korea, refuses to give it food aid and forbids its ships to enter Japanese harbors. More than any other country, Japan has been talking tough in six-nation negotiations meant to coax North Korea into abandoning nuclear weapons.

The national obsession with abduction has made Soga, like Jenkins, famous. But she does not talk to the press and neither do the four other Japanese abductees who were released six years ago.

Soga is not pleased that her American husband does talk, and talk and talk. Jenkins said that over the past four years, she has warned him not to write an autobiography, not to grant interviews and not to put his signature on the cookie boxes he sells.

She is now warning him, he said, not to write a second volume of his life's story.

"She said that in the end North Korea is going to get fed up. I am going to walk out my garage one morning to walk the dog, and I am going to get a bullet in the head. Very possible."

Becoming a Cold War Trophy

When he learned the arc of Jenkins's life inside North Korea, Jim Frederick, a senior editor at Time magazine who helped write "The Reluctant Communist," was disappointed.

Frederick writes in the book's foreword: "I thought it would have been ideal if he had lived a life of decadent privilege at the right hand of Kim Jong Il, if he had acted as a kind of court jester in the Dear Leader's inner circle."

But Jenkins had no such privilege, no such access, no such life. He is not a court jester. He is not a shrewd political observer. By his own description, he is an ill-educated guy who walked the wrong way.

He grew up in a large, poor family in the small, poor town of Rich Square, N.C. His father was a drinker who died early, and his mother was a nurse who struggled to feed seven kids. Jenkins did poorly in school and joined the National Guard at 15 after lying about his age.

Soon, he joined the Army and was sent off to South Korea to prowl around as leader of a "killer hunter team" along the DMZ, the stupendously well-guarded border between the two Koreas. While there in 1965, he grew unhappy with his dangerous job. He also had heard rumors that he was soon to be sent to Vietnam.

"I gave in to the worst side of myself," he says in the book. "I attempted to run from all of my problems rather than confront them head-on like a man and a soldier."

He walked into North Korea at night, stupidly assuming that because it was a communist country, it would turn him over to the Soviet Union, which would turn him back over to the U.S. government.

Instead, he became a Cold War trophy who outlasted the Cold War, a semi-privileged captive in a country that, with each passing decade, grew poorer, more isolated, more paranoid and more threatening to the rest of the world.

Jenkins makes no attempt in his book to explain why this happened. He doesn't have a clue. He is not that kind of guy.

The power of his story is in the details of his life. It was unspeakably boring, as well as depressing, drunken, hungry, cold, maddening and painful.

Speaking of pain: One warm summer day, while teaching English in a military school, Jenkins showed up for work in short sleeves. A "US Army" tattoo was visible on his left forearm. This upset the Communist Party cadre there.

Doctors were called in to cut off the tattoo, without benefit of anesthetics. Several cadres held Jenkins down, while a doctor used a scalpel to slice skin above and below the tattoo. Then, as Jenkins screamed, the doctor pulled up the intolerably tattooed skin and cut it off with scissors.

It should be noted that Jenkins is the only source for this and nearly all the other stories he tells about his life in North Korea. He does, though, have a wicked scar on his left forearm.

Pain of another kind occurred when Jenkins was forced to study, up to 11 hours a day, the teachings of Kim Il Sung, the founding "Great Leader" of North Korea. To this day, he said, he recites this "gibberish" in his sleep, in both English and Korean.

There were three other American deserters in North Korea, and for many years they lived miserably together. In the early 1970s, their minders gave them each a female cook.

They were divorced, infertile North Korean women who spied on the Americans and were under orders to have sex with them.

The first woman selected for Jenkins hated him. "I am not cooking for any American dog," she told him. A U.S. soldier, it turned out, had killed her father in the Korean War.

Jenkins recalled that he did not particularly want to have sex with this woman twice a month, as his minders said was the required minimum. Jenkins told them "to go to hell" and stay out of his private life.

As punishment, his hands were tied behind his back and he was repeatedly punched in the face -- by one of the other American soldiers.

Thanks to his Caucasian face, Jenkins was drafted to become an actor in propaganda films. He played the captain of a U.S. aircraft carrier in a film glorifying North Korea's capture in 1968 of the USS Pueblo, a Navy spy ship.

Jenkins devoted the bulk of his time, though, to survival -- an endless grind of shoveling coal for heat, scrounging for food, hauling water and standing guard at night so hungry, marauding soldiers wouldn't steal his peaches, his corn, his chickens or his kimchi.

Freedom, and Then the Brig

The beginning of the end came when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea in 2002, and Kim Jong Il unexpectedly said he was sorry for stealing away Japanese people. Soon, Jenkins's wife was on a plane back to Japan.

She had been, he said, the rock that kept him alive, healthy and reasonably sober in North Korea. When she flew off, Jenkins began guzzling Chinese ginseng liquor, which was 80 proof and cost $2.50 for a five-liter jug. He spent the better part of a year passed out on the floor of his house.

During that lost year, he convinced himself that Japan was holding his wife against her will. The Japanese government, meanwhile, was leaning on North Korea to release Jenkins and his daughters.

Koizumi returned to North Korea in 2004 and met personally with Jenkins and his daughters, asking them to come back with him on his airplane. The prime minister handed Jenkins a handwritten note that said the premier would "do the utmost that you can live together happily with Mrs. Jenkins in Japan."

Still, Jenkins declined, fearing that North Korea would not let him go. He also worried that, if he were allowed to leave, he would be punished harshly for desertion by the U.S. government and sent to jail for many years.

Finally, a compromise was reached. Jenkins and his daughters traveled to Indonesia, where they were reunited with Soga. Within minutes, she persuaded Jenkins to come home with her.

After a stint in a Japanese hospital, where doctors sorted out a prostate operation that had been bungled in North Korea, Jenkins put on a uniform and surrendered to U.S. authorities -- in front of a pack of TV cameras. He was, he said, the longest missing deserter ever to return to the U.S. Army. (Back in North Korea, one U.S. deserter is still believed to be alive; two others are dead.)

Jenkins faced a court-martial for desertion, aiding the enemy, soliciting others to desert and encouraging disloyalty. But the Army was lenient with him, sentencing him to 30 days in the brig. He got out five days early for good behavior.

A Life to Savor

Here on Sado Island, Jenkins and his wife recently finished rebuilding their house. His daughters live nearby. Now in their 20s, one is studying to be a kindergarten teacher, the other wants to be a wedding planner.

When he left North Korea, Jenkins weighed 105 pounds and had a gut full of infection from the botched prostate operation. Now he weighs 150 pounds -- and his tummy is rounded from the Japanese food that he loves.

He hasn't learned to speak much Japanese and says he probably never will. He speaks Korean with his wife and daughters -- and still dreams in Korean, sometimes about that bad old past.

He owns two motorcycles and rides one to work in good weather. His job at the cookie shop pays him about $48,000 a year, the highest salary of his life. He has won two certificates of recognition from local groups for being a tourist magnet on Sado Island.

With money from his book, he and his family have flown home to North Carolina to see relatives. He has been invited to Thailand to speak on human rights.

Over the past four decades, Jenkins said, he has often asked himself whether walking across the DMZ was truly the dumbest thing he had ever done.

Back in North Korea, the answer was always yes. But in Japan, with a family that he loves and a middle-class life that he relishes, he thinks not.

"I don't know if I'd of had a wife as good as I got," he said. "I wouldn't have had my daughters."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company