Former US army sergeant Charles Jenkins is escorted by his Japanese wife Hitomi Soga as they arrive at Tokyo's Haneda airport on July 18, 2004 after being reunited in Jakarta. Photo: Reuters

Charles Jenkins, the US Army sergeant who made headlines after his famous escape – deserting to North Korea from South Korea in 1965, has died. He was 77.

Jenkins later married a Japanese abductee while in captivity, but was allowed to move to Japan after nearly four decades in North Korea. He died outside his home in Japan on December 11. 

The Japanese government confirmed his death officially on Tuesday, saying Jenkins suffered heart failure. 

While Jenkins is known in the United States as a prominent defector to North Korea, in Japan he came to be known and loved as the humble and gentle husband of Hitomi Soga, 58. Ms Soga was kidnapped by North Korean spies in 1978 and met Jenkins during her captivity. She was allowed to return to Japan in 2002. Jenkins and their daughters followed two years later.

Jenkins was originally stationed in South Korea in 1965, when he fled to North Korea. In an interview with Nathalie Stucky for the online magazine Japan Subculture Research, he refused to go into all the details of why he left.

“I can’t tell you why I decided to leave the US Army, because I promised my military lawyer that I wouldn’t tell anyone. I left on January 5th [1965]. I counted my soldiers, put them in position. I waited about an hour and it was very cold. I told them I heard a noise and that I was going to check it out. Then I said I would go back very slowly – it was 27 [degrees] below zero. Anyway, that’s when I left. I took all my ammunition. I had a rifle. I had a T-shirt in my pocket and tied it on my rifle and walked all night like that. I walked across the biggest minefield in North Korea.”

The US Army claimed Jenkins wrote four letters stating his intention to defect, allegations which Jenkins denied. The original letters were reportedly lost.

James Dresnok, the last US Army deserter in North Korea, also died earlier this year, aged 74, from a stroke. He had defected in 1972. Dresnok is survived by two sons, both North Korean citizens.

Regrets and propaganda films

While in North Korea, Jenkins appeared in propaganda films. The North Korean government hoped to use him to train Korean spies to speak English and fit into American society. Jenkins said they gave up when they realized his thick North Carolina accent made his English difficult for operational use.

Jenkins shows where North Korean soldiers cut off his ‘US Army’ tattoo in June of 2017 on Sado Island. Photo: Nathalie Kyoko Stucky

He regretted his decision to defect, saying life in North Korea was brutal. During his interview, he showed a scar on his left arm and explained, “You see that scar? There used to be ‘US Army’ written up here. At the military university, they cut off my skin to the place where it was written ‘US Army’. Some North Koreans had seen my tattoo one day as I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. They grabbed me – [and] they don’t give no anesthetic, nothing. You know what they say? ‘The medicines are for the battlefields.’ They give the medicines to the military, not to the hospital dispensary. That’s where they cut off my skin. They took [a pair of] scissors and cut it off.”

However, his role as a villainous American, “Dr Kilton”, complete with a horrible haircut, in North Korean propaganda films, earned him some respect and fame. He even became a reluctant celebrity of sorts as detailed in his memoir, The Reluctant Communist (UC Press).

Jenkins says he was introduced to Soga a few years after she was abducted and they fell in love. Soga was 20 years younger than him. The two later married and had two daughters.

The American was court-martialed for desertion after his return to Japan in 2004 – sentenced to 30 days in jail, and given a dishonorable discharge. After, he lived quietly in Soga’s hometown on beautiful Sado Island working in the Sado City tourism facilities, where he was greatly liked.

From 1970 to 1980, Pyongyang used spies to kidnap Japanese citizens from Japan and overseas to help them train North Korean spies, so they could be effective in infiltrating Japanese society, engage in acts of espionage, and commit sabotage when necessary. The Japanese government officially counts 17 people as having been kidnapped by North Korea.

Koizumi visit and the missing kidnap victims 

In 2002, the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a surprise trip to Pyongyang. The North Korean government admitted to the kidnappings and allowed him to take Hitomi Soga and four other abductees home.

However, the fate of other citizens who had been kidnapped is unknown. Pyongyang claims there are no more abductees being held and that the missing Japanese citizens were either not kidnapped in the first place, or died in captivity.

In Japan, the death of Jenkins brought a focus on the fate of the abductees who have not yet returned. There is speculation that many more than 17 Japanese nationals were abducted by North Korea.

Many families of the abductees have expressed great frustration with the government’s failure to make any progress on the issue as time and old age catches up with those who remain. Toru Hasuike, the brother of one abductee, published a book highly critical of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration in 2015 entitled, Shinzo Abe and the Cold-Blooded People Who Abandoned the North Korea Abduction Victims to Die.

The death of Charles Jenkins is a reminder that if there are abductees left in North Korea, they are also running out of time to return to their home nations. 

As well as the 17 or more Japanese who were abducted, Anocha Panjoy – a Thai woman – was kidnapped in May 1978 while working in Macao. Jenkins said he met Panjoy while living in Pyongyang but pleas by her family in Chiang Mai and Thai government officials have failed to see her released or bring any news of her passing. North Korea has flatly denied kidnapping her, but Jenkins insisted she was there and still alive in 2003.

Jenkins shows photos of his wife Hitomi Soga and children during their time as captives in North Korea. The picture right shows Anocha Panjoy, a Thai woman abducted from Macao in 1978, who he said was in North Korea. Her family is still calling for Anocha to be returned. Photo: Nathalie Kyoko Stucky