Lore of the Corps
Stranger than Fiction
The GI Who Fled to North Korea for Forty Years
In January 1965, Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins abandoned his post and, without authority, walked across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into North Korea. After surrendering to enemy soldiers guarding the border, Jenkins spent the next four decades in North Korea—as a captive of the Pyongyang regime. In 2004, Jenkins—now married and with two daughters—returned to U.S. military control in Japan, where he was court-martialed for desertion and aiding the enemy. The story that follows is proof of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.
Born in a small town in North Carolina in February 1940, Charles Robert Jenkins enlisted in the Army in 1958. He had only eight years of education and a General Technical score of 65,1 but this was apparently sufficient for him to complete training as a light weapons infantryman. Jenkins first served at Fort Hood, Texas, before volunteering for duty with the 7th Infantry Division in South Korea in 1960. After briefly returning to American soil, Jenkins joined the 3d Armored Division in Germany, where he served until 1964. When he left Germany, Sergeant Jenkins requested to be reassigned to South Korea, since he had enjoyed his first tour of duty there. His request was approved and, after arriving in country, Jenkins joined the 1st Cavalry Division and was stationed along the 38th parallel at the DMZ.2 According to The Reluctant Communist—a memoir Jenkins published in 2008—within months of his return to South Korea, Jenkins became increasingly fearful that he would be killed while on patrol along the dangerous and highly-fortified DMZ. He also feared that he might lose his life in combat in Vietnam, where he was notified that the 1st Cavalry Division would soon be sent.3
As Jenkins became more anxious and depressed about his future in the weeks and months that followed, he convinced himself that if he were to walk across the two-and-a-half-mile-wide DMZ and into North Korea, he could obtain political asylum in the Soviet Union. Ultimately, Jenkins believed that Moscow would return him to the United States under some sort of prisoner exchange. In any event, while on patrol on the DMZ after midnight on 4 January 1965, Jenkins told his fellow Soldiers that he had to “take a leak” and then disappeared from their view as he walked into North Korea. However, after his surrender to North Korean soldiers guarding the frontier, subsequent events did not turn out as Jenkins had thought they would. “I did not understand,” he wrote more than forty years later, “that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes in there, they almost never, ever get out.”4
After a few days of interrogation, the North Koreans confined Jenkins in a one-room house with three other American deserters: Larry Abshier, Jerry Parrish, and James Dresnok.5 It was a horrific existence—with frequent periods of “cold, hunger, and despair.”6 When the Americans got food, it was often of poor quality. The house had only cold running water, but it rarely worked, which meant hauling water from a well—not an easy task in sub-zero temperatures. Jenkins endured constant supervision and regular beatings by North Korean guards. And, on the orders of the North Koreans, he was also beaten by his fellow Americans.7
Over time, conditions improved for Jenkins and his fellow American deserters. Since the men were “Cold War trophies,” the North Koreans decided that it was best if their captives “were kept mostly healthy.”8 But Jenkins “suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings, and mental torture to frequently wish that he were dead.”9
Jenkins and his fellow Soldiers spent most of their days studying North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung’s “Juche Idea,” which was Kim’s “homegrown theory of communism.”10 As Jenkins explained, the idea was for him and his fellow captives to study Kim Il-sung’s teachings and then “confess” on a regular basis how they had failed to live up to these teachings. It was hours of forced study, memorization, and “self-criticism.”11
In 1973, Jenkins and the other Americans were assigned to teach English at a military school on the eastern outskirts of Pyongyang. They would teach in rotation—ten to fifteen days at a time—to classes of officer cadets. There were thirty students in each class and all were the sons of prominent members of the North Korean government.12 Jenkins taught until the school closed in 1976. He then spent his days translating English language broadcasts from Voice of America, Armed Forces Network (Japan), and the Nippon Hoso Kyokai English radio service language into Korean for use by government cadre.13
In 1980, Robert Jenkins’s life changed dramatically when the North Koreans brought a twenty-one-year-old Japanese nurse named Hitomi Soga to his home and told him to teach her to speak English. Soga had been kidnapped by North Korean agents from her hometown in Japan in 1978 and taken to North Korea to teach the Japanese language and culture to North Koreans, who would then infiltrate Japan as spies.
Now, after two years, the North Koreans decided to put Soga in the house where Jenkins lived. They probably hoped that Jenkins and Soga would get married, which they did—thirty-eight days after first seeing each other. As Jenkins tells it, they were both lonely and they both hated North Korea. That was a “common bond” and marrying each other made it less likely that the North Koreans would separate them.14 Soga subsequently gave birth to a daughter in 1983. She and Jenkins had a second daughter in 1985.15
In 1981, Jenkins began teaching English to North Koreans at the Military Foreign Language University in Pyongyang. The students were already in the North Korean military, and most would be commissioned as officers. Some, however, were being taught enough English to be able to pass as South Koreans—and work as spies outside North Korea.16
The North Koreans also used Jenkins for propaganda. In an early installment of a multipart film called Nameless Heroes,17 he played the evil Dr. Kelton—an American warmonger and capitalist who lived in South Korea and who wanted to keep the conflict between the two Koreas going in order to make profits for U.S. arms manufacturers. Jenkins also later played an American Navy captain in a movie about the North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo, which had occurred in 1968 and of which the North Koreans were immensely proud.18
While the American government knew for many years that Jenkins was living in North Korea, this knowledge was not revealed to the public. Not until 2002 did Americans—and the world—learn about Jenkins. In a speech, Korean dictator Kim Jong-il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens “to use in its spy programs” and that some of them were still living in North Korea.19 In identifying those Japanese citizens still living in North Korea, the North Koreans also disclosed that one of the kidnap victims—Hitoma Soga—had married Jenkins.
As a humanitarian gesture, the North Koreans allowed these Japanese nationals to travel to Japan. As a result, Jenkins’s wife traveled to Japan in late 2002. Jenkins and his daughters, however, were kept in North Korea until July 2004, when they were finally reunited with their wife and mother, respectively, in Japan.
Recognizing that Jenkins had deserted from the Army, and that his presence in Japan arguably required that the Japanese government make an effort to return Jenkins to U.S. military authorities, the Japanese government formally requested a pardon for him. Having brought Hitomi Soga back from captivity, and now united her with her husband and their daughters, Japanese leaders in Tokyo mostly likely felt sorry for Jenkins having spent forty years confined in North Korea. They almost certainly believed that it would be best for all concerned if Jenkins and his family could get on with their lives.20
The U.S. Army, however, advised the Japanese government that Jenkins’s only course of action was to surrender to the military authorities at Camp Zama. Criminal charges had been preferred against him when he deserted in March 1965—and these were still pending against him. The charge sheet in SGT Jenkins’s official military records alleged that he had committed the following crimes: soliciting 1st Cavalry Division Soldiers to desert, in violation of Article 82, Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)21; desertion from 5 January 1965 to _______ (date to be determined), in violation of Article 85, UCMJ22; aiding the enemy, in violation of Article 104, UCMJ23; and adversely influencing the loyalty, morale, and discipline of 1st Cavalry Division Soldiers by advising these men to be disloyal, in violation of Article 134, UCMJ.24
In late July 2014—while Jenkins was still recovering from various ailments in a Japanese hospital, and had not yet returned to military control—the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service (TDS) sent Jenkins a letter offering him the services of a defense counsel. Jenkins accepted the offer, and TDS assigned Captain (CPT) James “Jim” Culp to consult with him. Culp met with Jenkins for an extended period and talked at length with him about the charges against him.
Ultimately, Jenkins decided that he could plead guilty to desertion and to aiding the enemy (by teaching English to North Korean military students). But Jenkins denied soliciting American Soldiers to desert to North Korea and he also denied encouraging disloyalty among 1st Cavalry Division Soldiers. These two charges—which had been preferred almost forty years ago—were based on the belief that Jenkins had made radio propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ. Jenkins insisted that he had never made any such broadcasts—and that he could not plead guilty to crimes he had not committed.25
Shuttling back and forth between the hospital and Camp Zama, Culp first attempted to obtain a Discharge in Lieu of Trial by Court-Martial for Jenkins under Army Regulation 635-200, Active Duty Enlisted Administrative Separations.26 The request was made in August, but the command refused to act upon it. As Major General Elbert N. Perkins, the General Court-Martial Convening Authority explained in writing to CPT Culp, it was “inappropriate” for him to act on a Chapter 10 when Jenkins had not yet returned to military control. Consequently, Perkins insisted that Culp tell Jenkins that his best course of action was to “expeditiously return” to the Army and “fulfill” his “duties, obligations, and responsibilities as a soldier.”27
Recognizing that it was unlikely that Jenkins would be permitted to avoid a trial, CPT Culp began informally negotiating a pre-trial agreement—even though Jenkins had not yet turned himself into the military authorities at Camp Zama. On 3 September 2004, Jenkins offered to plead guilty in return for a sentence that included no confinement. Major General Perkins refused this offer. Ultimately, with Culp’s assistance, Jenkins informally obtained a pre-trial agreement that capped his confinement at thirty days—with the understanding that nothing was assured until Jenkins turned himself in.
On 11 September 2004, now 64-year-old Jenkins finally surrendered to the military police at Camp Zama. The following day, he formally submitted his offer to plead guilty, which Major General Perkins approved on 22 October. The quantum portion of the agreement provided that, in return for entering pleas of guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy, Perkins agreed that he would not approve more than thirty days confinement, but that all other lawful punishments might be approved.28
On 3 November 2004, at a general court-martial convened by U.S. Army Japan and 9th Theater Support Command, SGT Jenkins pleaded guilty as agreed. Colonel (COL) Denise K. Vowell, the Army’s Chief Trial Judge, was the military judge in a bench trial.29 Captains Seth Cohen and Troy Wallace were detailed as trial counsel and assistant trial counsel, respectively.
After determining that his pleas were provident, COL Vowell sentenced Jenkins to six months’ confinement, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and a dishonorable discharge. When he took action in the case, Major General Perkins reduced the six months in jail to thirty days; he approved the remainder of the sentence as adjudged. As a result of his good behavior while confined, Jenkins was released from prison six days early, on 27 November 2004. While imprisoned, Jenkins decided to waive his post-trial and appellate rights, and so his dishonorable discharge was executed fairly quickly—on 18 July 2005.
Jenkins, his wife, and two daughters moved to Sado Island, Japan, which was his wife’s home. He “was a popular worker at a local souvenir shop and could often be seen posing in photos with visiting tourists.”30 On 11 December 2017, Jenkins collapsed outside his home. He was rushed to a hospital, but did not survive. Japanese news sources later reported that he died of “heart failure.”31 Jenkins was seventy-seven years old.
So ends the strange, but true, story of SGT Charles Robert Jenkins. He remains the longest missing deserter in Army history to return to duty—under truly remarkable circumstances. TAL
1. The “General Technical” (GT) score represents a person’s reading, language, and basic math skills. An average GT score is between 100 and 110. See Learn How to Join, U.S. Army, https://www.goarmy.com/learn/understanding-the-asvab.html (last visited Jan. 21, 2021).
2. Charles Robert Jenkins, The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea 16 (2008).
3. Id. at 19.
4. Id. at 44.
5. U.S. Army Private Larry Allen Abshier, Private First Class James Joseph Dresnok, and Specialist Jerry Wayne Parrish all died while living in North Korea. Mark Russell, An American in North Korea: Pledging Allegiance to the Great Leader, N.Y. Times (Oct. 19, 2006), https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/19/movies/an-american-in-north-korea-pledging-allegiance-to-the-great-leader.html; Cleve R. Wootson Jr., A U.S. Soldier Who Defected to North Korea in 1962 Has Died, His Pyongyang-Born Sons S ay, Wash. Post (Aug. 21, 2017, 12:35 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/08/21/a-u-s-soldier-who-defected-to-north-korea-in-1962-has-died-his-pyongyang-born-sons-say/. Crossing the Line, a 2004 documentary about Dresnok, is now streaming on Amazon. See Crossing the Line (British Broadcasting Corporation et al. 2006).
6. Jenkins, supra note 2, at 33.
7. Id. at 40.
10. Id. at 43-44. Kim Il-sung was the first ruler of North Korea. Selected by the Soviets to take charge of North Korea, he ruled as an absolute dictator and created a cult of personality. After his death in 1994, his son Kim Jong-il succeeded him as “Dear Leader.” Id.
11. Id. at 37.
12. Id. at 67.
13. Id. at 72. Nippon Hoso Kyokai, or Japan Radio Broadcasting, is also known as NHK. It is roughly equivalent to the United Kingdom’s British Broadcasting Corporation. Id.
14. Jenkins, supra note 2, at 89.
15. Id. at 107.
16. United States v. Jenkins, No. 20041131, at 42 (U.S. Army Japan, Camp Zama, Japan, 14 Sept. 2004).
17. Nameless Heroes, also known as Unknown Heroes, is popularly referred to as Unsung Heroes. See Unsung Heroes (Chosun Art 1978).
18. Jenkins, supra note 2, at 95.
19. Id. at 137.
20. Id. at 175.
21. UCMJ art. 82 (1950).
22. UCMJ art. 85 (1950).
23. UCMJ art. 104 (1950).
24. United States v. Jenkins, No. 20041131, at 8 (U.S. Army Japan, Camp Zama, Japan, 14 Sept. 2004) (DD Form 458, Charge Sheet, 15 Mar 1965) [hereinafter Record of Trial]. See also UCMJ art. 134 (1950).
25. Jenkins, supra note 2, at 174-75.
26. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 635-200, Active Duty Enlisted Administrative Separations ch. 10 (15 July 2004).
27. Record of Trial, supra note 24, Allied Papers (Memorandum from CPT Culp to SGT Jenkins, subject: Offer to Plead Guilty, SGT Charles Robert Jenkins, 4 Sept. 2004). Ultimately, on the recommendation of Colonel Karen L. Judkins, Staff Judge Advocate, U.S. Army Japan and 9th Theater Support Command, the Chapter 10 request was disapproved by Major General Perkins on 12 September 2004. Id. Allied Papers (Memorandum for CG, subject: Request for Discharge in Lieu of Trial by Court-Martial, SGT Charles Robert Jenkins, 12 Sept. 2004).
28. Record of Trial, supra note 24, Appellate Exhibit III (Memorandum from Captain James Culp to Sergeant Jenkins, subject: Offer to Plead Guilty, 12 Sept. 2004)
29. See Fred L. Borch, Women in the Corps: A Short History of Female Judge Advocates, Army Law., 2020 Iss. No. 1, at 13, 21. Denise K. Vowell had a distinguished career as an Army lawyer. She was the first female Staff Judge Advocate at 1st Infantry Division and the first female Chief Trial Judge in history. Colonel Vowell retired from active duty in January 2006 and was then appointed by the Court of Federal Claims as a Special Master in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program by the judges. A year later, Vowell was assigned as one of three special masters in the Omnibus Autism Program, handling one third of the court’s more than 5,000 cases alleging vaccine causation of autism spectrum disorder. Id.
30. Austin Ramzy, Charles Jenkins, 77, U.S. Soldier Who Regretted Fleeing to North Korea, Dies, N.Y. Times (Dec. 12, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/obituaries/charles-jenkins-north-korea-defector.html.