Army deserter finds good life after decades in North Korea

Former US Army deserter Jenkins arrives for his first full news conference since leaving North Korea in Sado, Japan
Former U.S. Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins arrives for a news conference on the northern Japanese island of Sado on Monday. Toshiyuki Aizawa / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

He begins his days with bread and coffee, likes to go wandering and is hoping to get a driver’s license and a job. Out of jail and living in his Japanese wife’s hometown on this remote, snow-covered island, U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins said Monday that he has finally found the good life.

“After 40 years in North Korea, Japan is very easy to get adjusted to,” Jenkins, 64, said in his first news conference since he was released from a military brig in November. “I’ve had no trouble whatsoever.”

Jenkins’ decision to join his Japanese wife here — a reunion made possible by an agreement last spring between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — ended the longest desertion case ever for the U.S. Army and brought to a close a bizarre chapter of the Cold War.

Fled to avoid service in Vietnam
Fearing combat in Vietnam, Jenkins, then a sergeant, fled to the North across the Korean Demilitarized Zone in January 1965. Once there, he was forced to teach English to military cadets, and used as a propaganda tool — he played a stooge-like American villain in at least one film.

In Japan, however, his story is overshadowed by the tragedy that befell the woman he married while in North Korea.

Hitomi Soga was kidnapped from this island by North Korean agents, bound in a black bag, shoved onto a speedboat and taken to the Stalinist nation in 1978, when she was only 19. Her mother, who also disappeared that night, has never been found.

The North allowed her and four other abductees to come home two years ago, but Jenkins and their daughters Mika, now 21, and Brinda, 19, stayed in North Korea. Jenkins and his daughters came to Japan in July and he surrendered to U.S. military authorities.

“I knew I’d go to jail,” he said. “But I knew it was my first and last chance to leave North Korea.”

Jenkins, who was dishonorably discharged and served 25 days in a military brig just south of Tokyo, told a court-martial he and three other American soldiers lived under constant watch in the North. They had to scrounge for food and study the works of communist leader Kim Il Sung for up to 16 hours a day.

‘I lived like a dog’
“The first 15 years, I lived like a dog,” he said Monday. “When I met Hitomi, my life changed.”

He said Soga, a nursing student, was abducted by accident. North Korea was looking for a schoolteacher to use to teach Japanese language and culture to its intelligence agents. When they realized the mistake, he said, they sent her to him to learn English.

“We were married soon after,” he said, breaking down into tears.

Since resettling here about two months ago, Jenkins and his family have moved into a small house surrounded by farms. Soga now works in the town hall.

Separated from the main Japanese island of Honshu by rough seas, Sado is so remote it once served as a place of exile for politicians and a penal colony.

Still, Jenkins said he feels welcome here.

“The people have accepted me,” he said. “I believe I could live in Sado just like any other Japanese.”

Jenkins said he is working on an autobiography and wants to find a regular job, but has little in the way of skills, having spent much of his time in a sort of limbo in the North.

“The question is what I am qualified to do,” he said. “I must work.”

Hoping to visit mother in U.S.
Jenkins, a native of Rich Square, N.C., said he is also hoping to visit his ailing mother in the United States as soon as possible.

“She’s 91 years old,” he said. “There are details that need to be arranged, but I hope I can see her sooner (rather) than later.”

After an initial thaw following Soga’s return, relations between Japan and North Korea quickly soured over lingering accusations that Pyongyang is still hiding the full story of its abductions program. After determining a set of remains the North claimed to be those of one abductee were false, Tokyo is now considering sanctions.

Soga vanished with her mother on Aug. 12, 1978. Villagers scoured the town for traces of the women, looking in the river and the sea. They checked passenger lists of ferries bound for the Japanese mainland.

Soga was only found in 2002 when Kim Jong Il admitted his country had kidnapped 13 Japanese, and said Soga and four others were alive.

Soga’s mother remains missing, and North Korea said she never entered the country. Japanese police nevertheless believe she was kidnapped with her daughter.