US & World

Charles Jenkins: US soldier who defected to North Korea dies


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Reuters

Image caption

Mr Jenkins walked across the DMZ and surrendered to North Korean soldiers there when he was 24

A former US sergeant who defected to North Korea and became Pyongyang’s prisoner for nearly 40 years has died.

Charles Jenkins, 77, lived in Japan where he had settled with his family after his 2004 release.

He was among four US soldiers who defected in the 1960s and later became North Korean film stars, but was the only one who was released.

The others reportedly died in North Korea, including James Dresnok who was said to have died of a stroke in 2016.

Charles Jenkins died on Sado island on Monday, where he was living with his wife Hitomi Soga, also a former prisoner of North Korea. Japan’s Kyodo news agency said the cause of death was not yet known.

A plan that went wrong

Mr Jenkins had led an extraordinary but also difficult life in North Korea, which he would later chronicle in a memoir and several interviews.

In 1965, while stationed with the US army in South Korea by the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), Mr Jenkins decided to abandon his unit and defect to the North, fearing he would be killed in patrols or sent to fight in the Vietnam War.

He said he thought that once in North Korea, he could seek asylum with the Russian embassy, and eventually return to the US in a prisoner swap.

One January night, Mr Jenkins walked across the DMZ and surrendered to North Korean soldiers there. He was only 24 years old.

But Russia did not grant him or the other Americans asylum. Instead, they were held as prisoners by the North Koreans.

The men were forced to study the teachings of then-leader Kim Il-sung; did translation work; and taught English. But they also became minor celebrities when they acted in North Korean propaganda films, starring as Western villains.

Mr Jenkins said his captors often beat him, and conducted medical procedures on him that were sometimes unnecessary or brutal, including cutting off a US Army tattoo without anaesthesia.

‘North Korea wants me dead’

Mr Jenkins said he was forced to marry Ms Soga – who was abducted from Japan – in 1980, and they had two daughters.

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AFP/JIJI PRESS

Image caption

Mr Jenkins and his family left North Korea in the early 2000s

In 2002, Ms Soga was freed after negotiations by the Japanese government. Mr Jenkins joined her two years later, along with their daughters, where he surrendered to the US army almost four decades after he had defected and was given a dishonourable discharge.

The family settled in Sado island, Ms Soga’s hometown, and Mr Jenkins worked as a greeter in a tourist park.

In August, in one of his last media interviews, he told the Los Angeles Times that he was still worried that North Korea would assassinate him or his family. “North Korea wants me dead,” he told the paper.



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