Charles Robert Jenkins was growing increasingly uneasy about leading aggressive military patrols near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a misnomer for the dividing line between South Korea and North Korea, two nations still technically at war today. Terrified by rumors that his division was being sent to fight in the bloody conflict in Vietnam, the 24-year-old American sergeant made a decision that wrought decades of hardship and regret—and led to an improbable love story.

In the predawn hours of January 5, 1965, Jenkins—fortified by ten beers to steady his nerves—slipped away from his fellow soldiers during a routine patrol. He walked for hours in the freezing cold, wandering into a mine-laden zone with a white shirt tied to the muzzle of his M-14 rifle. He hoped to surrender to North Korea, then seek aslyum at the Soviet Embassy and eventually make his way back to the United States via a prisoner swap. Instead, when he finally stumbled upon a North Korean soldier, he was arrested and interrogated, with no prospect of release.

“I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison,” Jenkins recalled in his memoir, The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial and 40-Year Imprisonment in North Korea.

A 1950s photo of Jenkins
A 1950s photo of Jenkins Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jenkins’ defection was a disastrous miscalculation. North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-sung, had been “building a society of absolutely total control” in the nascent nation, says Andrei Lankov, a historian at Kookmin University in Seoul. After World War II, the Soviet Union and the U.S. divided the Korean Peninsula—newly liberated following 35 years of Japanese colonial rule—with a hastily drawn boundary at the 38th parallel, taking control of the north and south, respectively. The split was envisaged as a temporary measure, but as the two victors morphed into competitors, hopes for nationwide elections vanished, and the division of Korea solidified under rival governments.

Kim’s decision to invade South Korea on June 25, 1950, triggered a three-year war involving the U.S., China and (unofficially) the Soviet Union. The fighting covered large swaths of the peninsula but failed to yield a decisive victory. More than 70 years after the Korean War settled into a tense standoff, North Korea remains one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

Few American soldiers have voluntarily crossed into the DMZ. Of these individuals, Jenkins’ story is particularly remarkable. He was preceded in the early 1960s by James Joseph Dresnok, Larry Allen Abshier and Jerry Wayne Parrish, all of whom remained in North Korea for the rest of their lives. In 1982, Joseph T. White broke through a gate at the border; a few years later, his family received a letter saying he had drowned. Last July, Travis King, a private who was reportedly facing disciplinary action, bolted away from a private DMZ tour; he was sent back to the U.S. in September and has been charged with desertion, among other crimes.

After his defection, Jenkins was taken to a small house, where he was held alongside Dresnok, Abshier and Parrish for eight desolate years. The men were forcefully indoctrinated with Kim’s teachings and constantly watched by a never-ending rotation of overseers. Jenkins found microphones hidden in the home—a further reminder the group was under constant surveillance. The men attempted to seek asylum at the Soviet Embassy in 1966 but were rebuffed.

L to R: James Dresnok, Larry Allen Abshier and Jerry Wayne Parrish
L to R: James Dresnok, Larry Allen Abshier and Jerry Wayne Parrish Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The mental pressures of confinement wore on the soldiers. Jenkins described Dresnok as a “stooge” who beat him at their captors’ behest. (In a 2006 documentary, Dresnok expressed loyalty to North Korea and disdain for Jenkins.) For the next 40 years, North Korean officials decided where Jenkins lived, who he met and where he worked.

For North Korea, “it was a dream: an American soldier who defected,” says Lankov. Weeks after Jenkins’ disappearance, the Associated Press cited North Korean media reports suggesting he’d found “a worthy life, a Shangri-La where I can enjoy happiness.” But readers had trouble deciphering the real sentiments behind the quote; as Lankov points out, from the moment Jenkins came under North Korean jurisdiction, he “had almost no control [over] what he said” and when he was seen. “If [North Korea] decided that he should be shown, he was shown,” Lankov adds. “If somebody decided that he should be forgotten, he could be forgotten for years.”

Back in Jenkins’ home state of North Carolina, news of the sergeant’s disappearance came as a shock to his family and friends. This was his second tour in South Korea and his seventh year in the U.S. Army, all without incident. His younger sister, Brenda Baird, says Jenkins had always wanted to join the Army and bore “no ill will toward the United States.” She remembers the family receiving “ugly letters” about her brother’s actions—a manifestation of the public disapproval they faced for decades. Later attempts to seek help from elected officials yielded nothing. “They all said he was a traitor,” says Baird. “We knew better.”

A 1965 newspaper article about Jenkins' defection
A 1965 newspaper article about Jenkins' defection

Some in the family believed Jenkins had been forced, or at least misled, into going to North Korea. Fueling the uncertainty were reports of a letter Jenkins supposedly left in his barracks before defecting. “I am sorry for the trouble I will cause you,” the missive read. “I know what I have to do. I am going to North Korea.” The note was signed, “Love, Charles.” Those who knew Jenkins were baffled—nobody ever called him by his first name. Instead, they referred to him as Robert or Super, a nickname from his teenage years. Decades later, in his memoir, Jenkins claimed he never wrote a letter and speculated it might have been manufactured by the Army to reinforce the idea that he wasn’t kidnapped, but rather left of his own accord.

In 1972, after almost eight years of joint confinement, Jenkins, Dresnok, Abshier and Parrish were moved to separate dwellings. They began teaching English at a military school, roles they held intermittently from the mid-1970s to 1980s. (Their lessons were halted for several years after a 1976 incident in which North Korean soldiers killed two Americans during a dispute over a tree in the DMZ, raising fears of war.) Jenkins recalled hating the unrelenting scrutiny and self-criticism sessions, an indoctrination ritual in which citizens reprimand themselves for failing to live up to Kim’s ideology. During Jenkins’ first year of teaching, the North Koreans noticed an Army tattoo on his arm and carved it out—without anesthesia.

Jenkins and the other Americans also appeared as villains in numerous propaganda films, including a dramatization about the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy ship captured by North Korea in 1968. Baird remembers seeing one such clip, her only inkling in years that her brother was alive. For the most part, though, “we had nothing,” she says.

The crew of the USS Pueblo walks into the DMZ following the men's release by North Korea in December 1968.
The crew of the USS Pueblo walks into the DMZ following the men's release by North Korea in December 1968. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Despite being kept in relatively better living conditions than many of the country’s own citizens due to the defectors’ status as “trophies,” Jenkins wrote in his memoir that he “suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings and mental torture to frequently make me wish I was dead.”

In 1980, officials brought 21-year-old Hitomi Soga to Jenkins’ home. She had been kidnapped from Japan two years earlier, stuffed into a bag and smuggled on a boat to North Korea. Soga was among a still-unknown number of Japanese people abducted by North Korea, where they were forced to teach their country’s language and customs to enemy spies, in the 1970s and 1980s. Soga’s mother, who was taken at the same time as her, was never seen or heard from again after the kidnapping.

Soga and Jenkins soon married—a decision initially born of common hardship. “We were very lonely in a world where we both were total outsiders,” Jenkins wrote. “And it took us a very short time to realize that we both hated North Korea.”

Hitomi Soga as a child, with her mother, Miyoshi Soga
Hitomi Soga as a child, with her mother, Miyoshi Soga Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The couple adopted a ritual of wishing each other “good night” and “oyasumi” in their respective languages, “so we would never forget who we really were and where we came from,” according to Jenkins.

The two forged an unlikely but strong bond that endured for the rest of Jenkins’ life. (After the two were freed, Jenkins told “60 Minutes” he offered his wife a divorce to afford her the choice they had both been denied in North Korea. Soga declined.)

The pair’s eldest daughter, Mika, was born in 1983, followed by Brinda (in honor of Baird) in 1985. Jenkins eked out the best life he could for his family in a place where necessities—warding off the cold, providing adequate food—required ingenuity. Later, “when he would tell us things that went on in Korea, we referred to him as ‘MacGyver,’” says Baird. “How else could he survive?” He also rigged a radio to receive foreign broadcasts, a risk he was willing to take for a trickle of information from the outside world.

That trickle didn’t flow the other way, and decades stretched on without conclusive information about his welfare emerging from the tightly sealed nation. A 1996 Pentagon report said the four American soldiers were still alive in North Korea but offered no substantive detail. Abshier is believed to have died in 1983, Parrish between 1996 and 1998, and Dresnok in 2016, according to his sons, who still live in North Korea.

Isolated from the outside world with no hope of repatriation, Jenkins found a certain rhythm to his defeat. He was “resigned,” he recalled in his memoir, to what he saw as steps to groom his daughters to become North Korean spies abroad. He and Soga “would have each other, and we would make the best of what we had. And we would die in North Korea.”

A 2002 photo of Charles Robert Jenkins and his daughters, Mika (far left) and Brinda (second from right), as well as Kim Hye-Gyong (second from left), the daughter of a Japanese abductee
A 2002 photo of Charles Robert Jenkins and his daughters, Mika (far left) and Brinda (second from right), as well as Kim Hye-Gyong (second from left), the daughter of a Japanese abductee Jiji Press / AFP via Getty Images

Then, in September 2002, word of a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to North Korea—the first of its kind—stunned Jenkins and upended those grim but realistic predictions about the couple’s future.

Through broadcasts on his illegal radio, Jenkins learned of a rare admission by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who had succeeded his father upon the latter’s death in 1994, regarding the abductions of Japanese citizens. It was part of a gambit to improve relations between the two nations, incentivized by the prospect of compensation tied to Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Japan had offered similar terms to South Korea when the countries established diplomatic ties in 1965.

The news was a lightning rod for the Japanese public. Soga was among those named, and she returned to Japan a short time later. There, she was welcomed with an outpouring of support and sympathy.

Jenkins’ situation was more complicated—and precarious. He was, after all, designated as a deserter from the Army and would likely face serious charges. The aging soldier held symbolic significance for North Korea, Japan and the U.S., albeit for vastly different reasons.

Koizumi appealed directly to American President George W. Bush for leniency for Jenkins. He also attempted to personally bring the defector and his daughters home during a May 2004 visit to North Korea. Jenkins refused, feeling he was tacitly threatened against leaving by North Korean officials. The situation posed a dilemma, as Soga clearly did not intend to return from Japan, and Jenkins was fearful of punishment by the U.S. Nearly two years after Koizumi’s initial visit, careful negotiations yielded an agreement that allowed the family to meet in Indonesia and weigh their options.

L to R: Charles Robert Jenkins, Hitomi Soga and their daughters, Mika and Brinda, in 2004
L to R: Charles Robert Jenkins, Hitomi Soga and their daughters, Mika and Brinda, in 2004 Photo by Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images

Desperate to reunite his family, Jenkins wrote that he was careful to hide his intention of not returning from Indonesia. He had to both “play along” with the notion that he would travel back to North Korea and downplay his plans to Mika, whom he feared was “more indoctrinated” and worried about being viewed as a traitor in North Korea.

By then, Jenkins had made peace with the prospect of a lifetime in prison, so long as it meant his daughters would have a chance at life outside of North Korea. “I thought, ‘I go to jail, I go to jail.’ As long as I get my daughters out,” he later told Time.

After receiving medical treatment in Indonesia, the entire family flew to Japan—and Jenkins finally went to face the Army.

By then a frail man in his 60s, a far cry from the depressed young soldier who had fled across the DMZ in 1965, he appeared at a U.S. military base in Japan on September 11, 2004. “Sir, I’m Sergeant Jenkins,” he said, “and I’m reporting.”

Following a brief trial in military court, in which his attorney argued he had “already suffered 40 years of confinement,” Jenkins served 25 days in a military prison in Japan.

Charles Jenkins, who defected to North Korea, speaks after his release in 2004

Throughout her brother’s decades in North Korea, Baird says the siblings’ mother, Pattie Casper, “never believed he was dead. … She held out hope for all those years.” In June 2005, Jenkins set foot on U.S. soil for the first time in four decades, where he was reunited with Casper, then 91 years old, in North Carolina. It was an improbable coda to the decision he made on a cold night in 1965.

Despite his believing he could never return there, North Carolina was a place Jenkins had envisioned many times. Baird recalls him telling her how he stayed sane during the barrage of indoctrination: “He would really relive, renew, revisit in his mind a time in his life at home, so he wouldn’t forget.”

His life was bookended by another place he had dreamed of only through Soga’s reminisces: her home island of Sado. “This is my first visit to Sado of course,” Jenkins tearfully told reporters after his arrival on December 7, 2004, “but over the past 20 years I spent in North Korea, I saw the beautiful and quiet of this land, this island which many times before were in my mind long before today.”

Jenkins died in Sado in 2017 at age 77. He’d led a life of both historical rarity and personal hardship that few could understand. Soga was among these few. “When I met her, my life changed a lot,” Jenkins told Time. “Me and her together—I knew we could make it in North Korea. And we did.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.