Charles Jenkins, a former American soldier who defected across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea in 1965 and was held by the totalitarian regime for 40 years, died in Japan on Monday at the age of 77.
Jenkins, who was freed in 2004, had lived on Sado Island with his wife, a Japanese woman named Hitomi Soga who herself was kidnapped by North Korea and forced to teach her language to Pyongyang’s spies. Jenkins’ death was first reported by Kyodo News and Japan’s NHK broadcaster, who said the cause was heart failure.
In January 1965, Jenkins decided to cross into the North and desert the U.S. Army in an attempt to avoid serving in Vietnam. He drank 10 beers to soothe his nerves, unloaded his military-issue rifle as a gesture of peace and walked across the border hoping he could travel through the country and possibly seek asylum in Russia.
But those hopes were quickly dashed, he told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year, and Jenkins said in retrospect that a lot of his decisions “don’t make sense now.” He was held for eight years in a room with three other American defectors and forced to memorize information about North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, beaten at times and forced to live in bleak, freezing quarters.
“In North Korea, I lived a dog’s life,” he told the Times. “Ain’t nobody live good in North Korea. Nothing to eat. No running water. No electricity. In the wintertime you freeze ― in my bedroom, the walls were covered in ice.”
Jenkins was eventually moved into his own home, and began to teach English and play roles as an evil American in North Korean propaganda movies.
In 1980, a then 21-year-old Soga was moved into his home by government authorities and they were forced to marry just weeks later. They later fell in love through their mutual hatred of the North, he told the Times, and had two daughters.
“After I met Hitomi, my life changed,” he said, according to NHK.
Soga was released through a deal between the North Korean and Japanese governments in 2002, and Jenkins and their daughters were released themselves two years later in 2004, according to The Washington Post. Then in his 60s, Jenkins was court-martialed on a U.S. Army base in Japan that year and sentenced to 30 days in prison for desertion, but was released early.
He went on to live in Japan with Soga and told Kyodo in 2012 that he was happy with his newfound freedom and his work at a souvenir shop at a local museum on Sado Island.
Shortly after the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in North Korea after he was accused of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel, Jenkins said he couldn’t understand why Americans would visit North Korea as tourists.
“It’s crazy,” he said in his interview with the Times. “North Korea will do anything to keep a foreigner.”