50 kilometers off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, Japan lies the distant and picturesque Sado Island.
A remote location even for those on the Japanese mainland, gold mines, fresh seafood, temples, festivals, and delicious sake make it a popular tourist destination and one that I myself made the long voyage to in August 2017.
For hundreds of years, Japanese rulers utilized the location as a place of banishment for political adversaries due to its isolated position far away from civilization.
Well off the beaten path, if one visited the Sado History Museum at a certain point, they might have been fortunate enough to meet the island’s most curious resident, who was something of an exile in his own right.
Inside the museum’s gift shop from 2005 to 2017 worked an elderly American who spoke little and silently posed for pictures with excited Japanese tourists.
For 39 years, six months, and four days, that man, named Charles Robert Jenkins, lived in North Korea, working as everything from translator to silver screen star.
Born on February 18, 1940 in Rich Square, North Carolina, Jenkins’s early life was marked by an abusive and broken family in one of America’s most impoverished small towns. He tolerated public school until the age of 16, when he dropped out and joined the National Guard.
U.S. Army life gave Jenkins a sense of purpose through rigid discipline, and he reached the rank of sergeant in only a few years.
Following successful posts in South Korea and Germany, Jenkins was assigned a second Korean deployment in 1964 at the DMZ.
Little did he know then that he would end up and remain in the DPRK for nearly the rest of his life.
After I went through the museum’s vibrant animatronic puppet exhibits, Jenkins glanced at me as I approached him at the gift shop. It was later in the afternoon towards the end of his shift.
After waiting my turn to have my picture taken with him, he wordlessly signed my copies of the Japanese and English editions of his memoir “The Reluctant Communist” while other tourists eagerly approached him.
In “The Reluctant Communist,” published first in Japanese under the title Kokuhaku, or “To Tell the Truth,” Jenkins delves into his experience as one of the few Americans who lived in North Korea. Among them, he was the only defector to have been able to leave and tell his story.
The book captivated me immensely when I first read it in high school, but after more time seriously studying North Korea as part of my field of academic research, I later became aware that first-hand accounts of people who have left the country do not always hold up to scrutiny.
In any case, I suspect that much of “The Reluctant Communist” was ghostwritten by its late co-author, the journalist Jim Frederick, as my impression of Jenkins himself was anything but that of an erudite autobiographer.
Jenkins made time to speak with me before he left for the day and soon caught on to the fact that I had been following his story for years.
He spoke plainly and without betraying his North Carolinian roots, still maintaining a heavy Southern drawl that proved difficult for even me to understand at times.
Regrettably, I did not record our conversation, but I learned several things that were previously unclear to me. At the same time, some doors to Jenkins remained completely closed.
CROSSING THE LINE
On January 5, 1965, before an evening border patrol, Sgt. Jenkins drank a dozen cans of beer and wrote multiple notes addressed to men in his living quarters which stated that they could keep the personal belongings he left behind.
With his M-14 rifle and compass, Jenkins told them that he was forging ahead alone to check if the coast was clear.
He would not be coming back.
Through the chilly darkness, Jenkins avoided frozen land mines that had not yet been tripped and spotted a North Korean soldier at a guard post after walking for hours. He was arrested on the spot after they understood his intention of peaceful surrender.
The obvious question naturally arises: why did Jenkins defect to North Korea?
He constantly told the same story. The linchpin that sparked his decision was a rumor that his division would be transferred to participate in the ongoing Vietnam War and he devised an incredibly ill-thought desertion plan:
He would cross the DMZ, make contact with the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang, and then be sent back to the United States through an eventual prisoner swap.
Director Daniel Gordon, who was responsible for the documentary “Crossing the Line” which centered on the life of fellow defector James Joseph Dresnok, doubts that Jenkins’s deserted for this reason. Given the extreme conditions he was already immersed in and the absurdity of his intentions, he suspects that there had to be another motivation.
I unfortunately was not going to get the answer from the man himself either, as he tactfully dodged the question when I attempted to ask and once again stuck to the Vietnam War story.
His true circumstances for leaving beyond that, however, will likely never be known.
What can reasonably be gathered is that due to poor education, it is unlikely that Jenkins had any strong ideological or political motivations, at least when he initially defected.
According to his memoirs, he never bought into any of the Juche ideology he was forced to study by his North Korean minders, and when I asked, dismissed any notions that communism could ever work as a viable economic system.
What makes this complicated, however, is a surviving newsreel of DPRK state media announcing Jenkins’s arrival on television which was broadcasted throughout the country. On camera, Jenkins delivers a prepared statement that denounces the U.S. Army, but devised scripts and coercion are not uncommon tactics employed by the DPRK when they hold foreigners. He has never commented publicly on those remarks.
FELLOW AMERICAN COMRADES
Jenkins was not the first American to have found his way to North Korea either. For various other reasons ranging from facing court-martials for insubordination to domestic problems back home, Private Larry Allen Abshier, PFC James Joseph Dresnok, and Corporal Jerry Wayne Parrish had all previously defected and similarly starred in propaganda materials that benefited the regime of Kim Il Sung.
On the topic of the other American defectors, he referred to them as his “friends” without a hint of malice despite previous accounts of his rivalry and tensions with Dresnok in both The Reluctant Communist and “Crossing the Line.”
Similar to his non-committal answer about why he defected, perhaps I could have pursued this line of seeming contradiction further, but I had little desire to ask any hard-hitting questions at the time as this was not a pre-planned interview on my part.
I instead asked about Roy Chung, a U.S. Army soldier of South Korean descent who allegedly defected to North Korea in 1979. Jenkins had never even heard of him.
When I inquired about long-standing reports that potentially hundreds of unrepatriated American POWs were left behind in the DPRK after the Korean War or transferred during the Vietnam War, Jenkins affirmed that he believed them to be true and that they had been employed as labor on collective farms.
How Jenkins could know this is not entirely clear to me, but his book makes several claims that many foreign nationals are still being held in North Korea against their will.
At one point in our conversation, I brought up my Lebanese heritage, to which Jenkins immediately mentioned Parrish’s wife and reminisced about her fondly.
Abshier and Parrish all wed foreign women who were alleged to be abductees, but the two men died at relatively young ages due to illness.
Abshier’s spouse Anocha Panjoy was supposedly taken from Thailand, but her current status remains a mystery. Parrish’s Lebanese wife claimed to have visited North Korea of her own free will despite allegations to the contrary. She is reportedly still living in Pyongyang with their three sons.
Dresnok had two sons with a Romanian woman (also supposedly an abductee), and following her passing in 1997, married a half-Korean, half-Togolese whom he also had a son with.
While Jenkins consistently kept his hatred for the DPRK regime, Dresnok, on the other hand, appeared more sympathetic. Content with his family life with no intention of ever leaving, he passed away in 2016 of natural causes.
STARDOM UNDER SOCIALISM
Easily one of the more bizarre anecdotes was the decision to use the men as actors to play villainous parts in motion pictures. Jenkins had previously helped create Korean subtitles for foreign movies shown to DPRK elites, but soon he was appearing in films for them.
I mentioned Jenkins’s brief stint as an actor in North Korean cinema which was probably the most humorous point of our conversation. He acknowledged his lack of performance ability, but considered it to be one of the more nostalgic moments of his life in the DPRK.
In “Unsung Heroes” (also translated as Nameless Heroes or Unknown Heroes), Jenkins performs as Dr. Kelton, the conniving mastermind behind the 20-part serial’s melodramatic events. His English dialogue was dubbed over by Dresnok due to his strong accent, while Dresnok himself only appeared in one part because of his own poor acting.
The existence of four American servicemen who had willingly crossed over to the North Koreans was always an inconvenient fact to the U.S. State Department, but these films were proof that Jenkins and the other defectors were possibly still alive.
While concrete details about the men were hard to come by outside of North Korea, domestically they became recognized on the street as minor celebrities.
They quietly resigned themselves to their fate that they would likely not be leaving, especially now that they had families to take care of.
ABDUCTIONS AND REPATRIATIONS
Like the other American defectors, Jenkins eventually married and raised children.
A sore point between Japan and North Korea is the infamous “abduction issue” where at least a dozen Japanese nationals were systematically kidnapped throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The exact number is undetermined, but famous abductee victims such as Megumi Yokota and Yaeko Taguchi were known to have taught North Korean spies the Japanese language.
DPRK agents kidnapped Hitomi Soga at age 19 with her mother Miyoshi from their hometown of Sado Island, but only the former entered North Korea. The true fate of her mother is unknown to this day, but Soga eventually married Jenkins after a brief courtship in 1980 initiated by their minders.
Soga birthed two daughters — Jenkins always maintained that the eventual plan was for them to be groomed spies loyal to the regime. Given their bi-racial appearance, specialized education, and fluency in the Korean language, this admittedly is not so far-fetched of a hypothesis, but it was never brought to fruition.
Of course, this was something I asked Jenkins about and he once again confirmed his belief in the spy creation theory. It happens that defector Jang Jin-sung also wrote of this “seed-bearing strategy” in his memoir Dear Leader.
In 2002, a historic summit in Pyongyang was held between Kim Jong Il and then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. To the surprise of everyone, Kim admitted to and apologized for the abductions which had up until this point been only considered an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.
After insistent demands from Koizumi, Kim arranged for Soga and four other abductees to return to Japan. Their families, however, would not be going with them.
Jenkins and the couple’s daughters remained in Pyongyang and endured two years of separation while the Japanese and North Korean governments negotiated their repatriation. In 2004, the family was reunited in Jakarta, Indonesia since it was considered a neutral country amidst a tense political situation.
The Japanese media coverage was widely sympathetic to the family, but U.S. media was far more critical. With the American public having no knowledge of the context of the abduction issue, all they saw was a cowardly defector who was possibly even a communist sympathizer.
Ultimately, the U.S. military courts considered Jenkins’s time spent in North Korea to be sufficient enough punishment for his desertion. He was lightly sentenced to only 30 days in confinement, was released six days early for good behavior, and had his rank reduced to private with a forfeiture of all military benefits.
THE LAST SURVIVING DEFECTOR
When I met Jenkins, Sado Island had been his home for 13 years after resettling in Japan with his family. His days had been leisurely spent selling senbei rice crackers, which I also bought from him that day.
I asked if he was happy, and he said that while the simple work had been enjoyable at first, it was now more tedious. More positively, Jenkins informed me that he had become a grandfather the same week and that his daughters were fully integrated into Japanese society.
Contrary to early media reports, Jenkins never received citizenship from the Japanese government and attested that to him being unable to speak Japanese when I asked. He instead resided in Japan on a special permanent residence visa due to his wife’s status as a national hero.
Would he ever return to visit America?
“Eventually,” he replied. Yet his U.S. passport had expired and a trip to the embassy in Tokyo would be necessary. For Jenkins, leaving Sado was an inconvenience.
What I wanted to ask him the most was his thoughts on the future of North Korea. This was at the peak of America’s 2017 “fire and fury” rhetoric, before any summit had occurred between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un.
Jenkins dismissed the idea of Trump having any breakthrough with the DPRK and went as far as to suggest that he would not even finish his first term. Short of decisive military action, he expected the DPRK to maintain control of its populace indefinitely with little sign of change.
He did not live to see the historic Singapore summit the following year.
At age 77, Charles Jenkins died of a heart attack less than four months later, which meant that I was probably one of the last Americans to have ever met him.
Coincidentally, the day after our meeting was when the DPRK launched its first missile of 2017 over Japan, with further tests still occurring even now after multiple summits and failed working-level talks.
Perhaps his cynicism was not entirely unwarranted.
50 kilometers off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, Japan lies the distant and picturesque Sado Island.A remote location even for those on the Japanese mainland, gold mines, fresh seafood, temples, festivals, and delicious sake make it a popular tourist destination and one that I myself made the long voyage to in August 2017.For hundreds of years, Japanese rulers utilized the location as a
Oliver Jia is Kyoto-based graduate student currently pursuing his master's in international relations at Ritsumeikan University. His research focuses on Japan-DPRK relations and Zainichi Korean issues.