We recently wrote about Japanese citizens mysteriously abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s and forced to teach North Korean spies how to act Japanese.
One of those kidnapping victims was 19-year-old Hitomi Soga, who Japan believes was taken with her mother in 1978 when they were out shopping. After her abduction, Soga married a man whose arrival in North Korea is also shrouded in mystery — a U.S. soldier named Charles Jenkins.
Jenkins is one of just four American soldiers who have ever defected to North Korea, and he is the only defector ever allowed to leave.
In 1964, 24-year-old Sergeant Jenkins was a squad leader stationed at the heavily militarized border of North and South Korea. During a patrol, he announced to his squad that he had heard something near their position and was going to investigate it alone, as CBS’ 60 Minutes reported. Instead, Jenkins walked to the border and surrendered to North Korean troops.
Jenkins, who claimed he wasn’t a communist sympathizer, said he defected to North Korea because he was being ordered to lead increasingly provocative patrols. He also heard his unit might deploy to Vietnam.
Once in the enemy’s hands, Jenkins said he expected North Korea to give him to the Russians, who would in turn deliver Jenkins to America in a prisoner swap. Instead, Jenkins was brought to a house where he lived with three other U.S. military deserters — 19-year-old Larry Abshier, 21-year-old James Dresnok, and 19-year-old Jerry Wayne Parrish — who had all defected separately since 1962, according to Foreign Policy.
There, the North Koreans forced the Americans to study the writings of North Korea’s then-dictator Kim Il-Sung eight hours per day for seven years, until they had memorized it all in Korean. The government used the Americans for propaganda fliers, forced them to portray evil Americans in movie productions, and made them teach English to soldiers and spies.
Jenkins’ home lacked heat and properly functioning toilets. When the North Koreans discovered a U.S. Army tattoo on Jenkins’ arm, they cut it off with scissors and didn’t use an anesthetic to dull the pain.
In 1980, the key to Jenkins’ eventual release was delivered to him in the form of a 21-year-old Japanese woman, Hitomi Soga. Two years after North Korean agents kidnapped Soga in Japan, they brought her to Jenkins to become his bride.
“This was one of the most bizarre things that happened to Jenkins in his entire time in North Korea and it ended up, much to his surprise, being his salvation,” CBS correspondent Scott Pelley reported in the 2005 60 Minutes segment.
The arranged marriage became real as the pair, both foreign prisoners who hated North Korea, gradually fell in love. Jenkins told CBS they always said good night to each other in the other’s native language to remind each other where they came from. Over 22 years, the couple remained close and had two daughters.
Then in 2002, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Il finally admitted his country had abducted 13 Japanese citizens, although a Japanese government report puts the true number at 17, or possibly much higher. Soga was one of five victims returned to Japan that year. Two years later, Jenkins and their two daughters were released to join Soga.
Forty years after his desertion, Jenkins served a 25-day sentence in a military prison. He and Soga chose to continue their marriage after their release. They settled in Soga’s hometown, and the Japanese government granted Jenkins permanent residency status in 2008. While he lives in Japan, he has returned to the U.S. to visit his elderly mother.
Less is known about the other three American defectors who once lived with Jenkins in North Korea. Abshier and Parrish died in North Korea years ago, reports Foreign Policy. Dresnok still lives in North Korea with a family of his own, and he has claimed that he doesn’t want to leave.
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