The mysterious country of North Korea has left many of us guessing what lies behind the curtain that surrounds it all. In a country that holds elections with only one candidate, only three fun fairs across the whole land, three TV channels (two of which aren’t available until the weekend), and a propaganda city set up at the border to intimidate their neighbours, it seems as though most of these facts can only be stories. Sadly, for 25 million people this is the harsh reality they are forced to live in every single day. The country was founded in 1948 by King Il-Sung when two separate governments were formed for each half of the country, the other being South Korea. Since then North Korea has had conflicts with a number of others around the globe, as well as the publicised disputes between their current leader and the President of the United States. It seems as though there are plenty of things the rest of the world will never honestly know about this bewildering country.
During the Vietnam War, approximately 50,000 American soldiers deserted their posts to escape the battlegrounds. It was one of the largest desertions in the history of America, as the soldiers fled for fear of their lives. One of those amongst the people running away was Charles Jenkins who thought that a life of patrolling was too dangerous to continue. However, for Charles, when he left the military in search of a better life he was about to discover how his life was on a path to destruction. In a twist of fate, one woman came into his life that would end up becoming his savior.
Life changing decision
For most of us, it is hard to understand what an incredible toll war can take on your body and mental health. One freezing January night, US sergeant Charles Jenkins was posted at the Korean border when it all became too much. The soldier decided it was time for a change, but little did he know that by walking into the unknown lands of North Korea he was about to change his entire life; all thanks to one extraordinary woman…
Defending the country
Charles was born in a small town in North Carolina on February 18, 1940. Growing up in this period meant that he was surrounded by some political difficulties which all came to a head by the time he had reached young adulthood. The US had already been involved with the Vietnam War for a number of years by the time Charles had grown up. He had seen many of his friends sign up to the military and Charles didn’t want to miss his chance. He wanted to do anything he could to help.
Being assigned his post
Charles was just 18 years old when he signed up to the military in 1958, three years after the start of the Vietnam War, and 17 years shy of seeing the end. Although Charles was determined to help his country in any way he could, he never graduated from high school before putting his name down. It was confirmed by the military that Charles had an IQ that was far below that of an average person when he signed up. However, as the military needed soldiers, they took him on.
Getting his post
Luckily for Charles, he managed to avoid being posted on the frontlines of the war. Instead, Charles found himself patrolling the border between North and South Korea to ensure no one was able to make it across. Although compared to a lot of the other posts he could have been assigned to Charles had managed to land one of the safest, he couldn’t help but think about what could happen to him. Walking up and down the border each day and night saw anxious, terrifying thoughts go racing through Charles’ mind…
Fearing for his life
Over the years, Charles continued to serve in the US military, until a night in January that would change everything. Charles was now 24 years old but had been struggling with the same terrified thoughts for the last six years. The soldier lived in constant fear that he would be injured on one of his patrols, or that he would be forced to fight on the front lines if he was repositioned. In an attempt to comfort himself, Charles began drinking to drown out the unsettling mental images.
Setting up the plan
Charles Jenkins concocted a plan to save himself. Charles thought that if he could cross the border to make it into North Korea, then he would be able to make it to the Soviet Union’s embassy. Here it was Charles’ plan to seek asylum where he could be swapped during a Cold War prisoner swap between Russia and America. Going over and over the idea, Charles decided it had to be better than living in constant fear for his life. If only he knew what was about to come when he took that first step…
Getting everything prepared
When the night in question came around, Charles was shaking with nerves. In fact, it took ten cans of drink until the soldier felt ready enough to make his grand escape. He didn’t want the North Korean soldiers to think that his attempted escape was a way of invading the country, so Charles took all the bullets out of his rifle to show the soldiers he came in peace. They believed Charles’ story so let him cross the 2.5 mile mine-infested border at his own risk.
Discovering the truth
Little did Charles know that he was about to start a journey that would span four decades. Just one day into his grand escape, and the soldier knew that running away from his post was the biggest mistake of his life. Almost immediately after setting foot in the country Charles was captured by North Koreans who had plenty in mind for their new prisoner, nothing of which involved being freed. Charles was forced into a single room with three other Americans, James Dresnok, 21, Jerry Parrish, 19, and Larry Abshier, 19.
A new life
Charles was about to discover that North Korea was going to be his new home whether he liked it or not. The soldiers that were holding the four men captive informed them that they were to learn their country’s supreme leader and founder, Kim Il Sung’s writings. They were to study for 10 hours a day. If one of them couldn’t recite the writings in Korean, then they could be beaten, or all be forced to study for an extra six hours a day instead.
Larry, James, Jerry, and Charles were all forced to live in their prison for seven years. Charles had successfully managed to learn the writings but didn’t want to believe a single word he learned. Whilst there, many of the men started to fight among themselves, with Charles recalling that James Dresnok was the snitch of the group that would often land the others in trouble. Amazingly, after their horrific ordeal, the men were eventually allowed to live in their own homes.
Under constant watch
During this time the soldiers back at Charles’ base were told that he was living a life of luxury, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Even though it looked as though the men were gaining freedom, they were, in fact, kept under constant watch. If anything, it appeared as though life was about to get worse for Charles as the torture escalated. One of the soldiers took a dislike to the fact Charles had a US military tattoo so decided to cut it off without any anesthetic.
New line of work
In their new found “freedom”, Charles was employed to teach English to North Koreans. While he tried his best to translate his native tongue, Charles was from North Carolina which meant he had a thick accent. Even some Americans struggled to understand what Charles was saying, so it was no surprise that the students were finding it difficult to grasp the language. Although Charles lost his job in 1985, he and the other prisoners were about to come into a new line of work.
Kim Il Sung had a son named Kim Jong-il who was obsessed with making movies. He enlisted Charles to play the part of the villainous American in his 20 part film franchise titled Unsung Heroes. It may sound as though life was finally on the up for Charles, who would have random strangers stopping him in the street for an autograph. However, this wasn’t the case. Charles had his head forcibly shaved as well as being dressed in over the top makeup to make him look as evil as possible.
Secrets of the films
The movies may have seemed like innocent fun for Kim Jong-il, but in reality, they were being used as propaganda as they portrayed America wanting to keep the war going for financial benefit. Kim Jong-il was also obsessed with pleasing his father; he hoped that by turning the nation against Americans he would finally receive his father’s recognition. It wasn’t just Charles that starred in the movies, as Kim Jong-il cast the other three prisoners as villains in the films, too.
During 1980, 16 years after Charles had first made his way into the country, he was informed that he was soon to be walking down the aisle. Hitomi Soga was just 21 years old when she was told that she would be tying the knot with 40 year old Charles even though the pair had never met. Although the couple didn’t know a thing about each other, they discovered they had one thing in common: their hatred for North Korea.
Kidnapped from home
Tragically, Hitomi had her own sad journey that had led her to live in the country. Two years before her marriage date, Hitomi had been kidnapped from Japan by North Korean soldiers when she was just 19 years old. The idea was they wanted her to be able to teach North Koreans how to speak Japanese in a plan to send in spies to the country. Since then Hitomi, too, had been held captive against her will, not knowing whether she would ever return home.
Hitomi was prepped so she would be ready for meeting Charles, only her training was more like an English lesson as Charles and Hitomi weren’t able to communicate with each other. A minder was in charge of overseeing the pair. This minder informed Hitomi that she would soon be calling the man behind the door her husband just moments before they walked into the room. It looked as though Charles was never going to be free from the grip of the country…
Love at first sight
Although there were nearly two decades between the pair, they grew to love each other. The couple ended up tying the knot as well as having two daughters named Brinda and Mika. It was after the birth of their children that Charles suspected they were now also part of North Korea’s plan. Charles believed the reason the country wanted them to have children was so they looked western enough to travel into countries as undercover spies. Charles now suspected everyone of plotting against him.
In 2002 it looked as though everything was about to change. Kim Jong-il was now the leader of the country following his father’s death. As if from nowhere, Kim Jong-il admitted to the world that North Korea was responsible for kidnapping 13 individuals from Japan over the years. He wanted to apologize to all of those affected by letting them return home. However, in pure dictator form, this home visit was to last only ten days before they must return.
Torn between the two
Hitomi was one of the chosen few that was allowed to return to Japan to visit her family. However, the decision wasn’t without issues. If she returned home, Hitomi would have to leave her husband and daughters behind, whereas if she stayed she wouldn’t be able to see her family after all those years away. Charles had deserted the military meaning if he tried to escape with his wife he could be extradited back to the US where a life sentence in prison could be waiting for him.
Making a break for it
For Charles, even a lifetime behind bars was better than staying in North Korea for one more day. He managed to get permission for a family holiday where he was allowed to travel with his two daughters to Indonesia. Charles convinced officials the three would only be gone for a few days. In reality, Charles met up with his wife and the whole family then fled to Japan in the hopes of finding safety at long last.
Confessing to the crimes
September 11, 2004 – the day Charles Jenkins finally checked in for duty. The soldier arrived at Tokyo, Japan where he located the US military base nearby. Charles wanted to make a good impression, so he put on his best suit before announcing to the military police officer who he was after all this time. For nearly 40 years the soldier had been AWOL, which made him the longest soldier that had deserted their post in American history.
The charge sheet
Even though Charles Jenkins had been through an ordeal so horrific most of us could never understand, he had still deserted his post all those years ago meaning he was going to be punished. The military set about uncovering the truth, but it wasn’t looking good. Charles was not only being charged with deserting the army, but he was also under question as to whether he helped North Korea, accused of being disloyal, and encouraging other soldiers to run away. The charges meant Charles could face the death penalty.
Could the military possibly charge Charles with all the accusations after everything he had been through? Thankfully for the soldier, he had his life spared as he was ordered to spend just 30 days in prison. In a twist, Charles ended up spending only 25 days behind bars before he was released as a free man for the first time in nearly four decades. Charles moved his entire family to Sado Island where he was offered a job in a tourist park selling crackers to visitors.
On December 11, 2017, Charles Jenkins tragically passed away. It is believed that Charles suffered a stroke before being discovered outside his family home. Thankfully for Charles, he was able to see his family finally free from North Korea before his death. For his final years, Charles could enjoy the freedom with his family who was the reason he managed to escape. If he had never said “I do” to Hitomi, Charles might have remained in North Korea forever.