Second life of GI who deserted to North Korea

Charles Robert Jenkins is running late. He hurries into work at the souvenir shop to a chorus of approving calls that has become the foreign-language soundtrack to his life.

"Jenkins-san!" shout two dozen tourists lined up to meet this diminutive man with jug-handle ears, a 69-year-old American who speaks only a few words of their native tongue.

With a weary smile, Jenkins poses for a frenzy of snapshots, awkwardly holding a box of specialty cookies. Everyone wants a piece of him, pressing in close to shake his hand and ask him to sign their souvenir snacks.

"One day I counted 300 pictures in the first hour alone," Jenkins recalls in the easy cadence of his native North Carolina. "Then I just gave up counting."

And so begins another day in the bizarre life of a man famous for "the stupidest decision of my life."

In 1965, Jenkins was a U.S. Army sergeant assigned to the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean peninsula, a skinny 24-year-old who was terrified of being sent to what he considered a sure death in Vietnam.

One night, after guzzling 10 beers for courage, he abandoned his sense of duty and freedom as he knew it to stumble across the border into North Korea, a desperate midnight maneuver that led to four lost decades in communist captivity.

Jenkins quickly became the Pyongyang government's most prized Cold War pawn. He starred in propaganda movies and memorized the inflated political tracts of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, enduring a life so dreary and deprived that "most days you wished you were dead."

Eventually, he married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman abducted in 1978 as a teenager by the North Koreans. They raised two daughters, eking out an existence on government-issued rice and the undersized vegetables they grew in their garden.

Soga was released by Pyongyang in 2002 but later reconnected with Jenkins and the children she left behind. The couple's emotional reunion, falling into each other's arms at an Indonesian airport, elevated them to the status of unofficial Japanese royalty -- their fairy-tale cross-cultural romance celebrated by an entire nation.

In 2004, Jenkins settled here on isolated Sado island off Japan's western coast, explaining that it was for the sake of his family. Soga, who was abducted from Sado, and daughters Mika and Brinda, who speak little English, have declined to discuss their captivity, which, for the daughters, ended along with Jenkins' in 2004.

Not Jenkins. Since his U.S. Army court-martial, at which he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for abandoning his unit, he has published a memoir, "The Reluctant Communist," a book his wife didn't want him to write out of fear of North Korean reprisals.

Still part Southern good ol' boy, Jenkins likes fast cars and racing his motorcycle. He slaps his knee when he tells a joke.

But despite his five years of freedom, the Wal-Mart-style souvenir shop greeter remains a solitary figure, a modern-day man without a country. He's an accidental expat with few close friends who still grapples with the guilt and shame of abandoning his men and his nation so many years ago.

The fallout from being held more than half his life in a secretive, alien culture still hovers about him: He knows that some folks back in North Carolina, the place that's still part of his bones, dismiss him as a communist sympathizer. Yet in Japan, where he is accepted, even embraced, he often feels like a dime-store curiosity.

Life remains a dizzying cultural puzzle. He admits that he speaks better Korean than English. He uses Korean with his wife and daughters, who prefer to speak Japanese among themselves.

He likes Elvis Presley, a boyhood hero, but also listens to Michael Jackson, whose music he first discovered buying black-market cassettes in Pyongyang, which he pronounces "pinyan."

"You couldn't make up his life -- it's something out of an absurd film," said Jim Frederick, who co-wrote Jenkins' 2008 book. "It's the story of a stranger in a strange land.

"While everyone is nice to him, he's still an outsider, still a stranger. He's still not home, and he probably never will be."

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The moment he crossed the barbed-wire border into North Korea, Jenkins realized he'd made a terrible mistake.

His time in North Korea was part comedy, part horror. He says he and three other American deserters mocked their political minders, whom they nicknamed Whitey, the Fat Cadre and the Colonel in Glasses.

Jenkins also says he once had part of a U.S. military tattoo on his arm cut away -- without anesthesia.

In 1980, he was introduced to Soga and soon became protective of the slight woman 20 years his junior. They quickly married.

"I don't know what drove us together. On the face of it, we had very little in common," Jenkins wrote in his memoir. "I do know that we were very lonely in a world where we both were total outsiders. And it took us a very short time to realize that we both hated North Korea. That gave us a strong common bond."

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Jenkins rounds the corner in his Japanese subcompact and points to a spot along the road. "There," he says, "right there."

Near his wife's childhood home, where the family now lives, is the place where Hitomi Sago and her mother were abducted as they returned home from the market. Decades later, the mother's whereabouts remain unknown.

Nearly 700 miles east of Pyongyang, the site serves as a grim reminder of a captive past that will not leave Jenkins be. He often dreams about being chased by North Korean agents. More often, he fantasizes about kidnapping one of the sons of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, as a way to have some sort of revenge for a life lost.

Jenkins still shivers and looks over his shoulder, unconvinced that North Korean agents won't come for him.

"I figure I know more about North Korea than any foreigner in the world outside of Pyongyang," he says. "I don't care if they kill me. I just don't want them to take me back."

Each day, Jenkins reports to the souvenir shop with a homemade lunch of rice and dumplings his wife prepares before she heads off to work at a nearby nursing home. He has gained weight since arriving here at just over 100 pounds.

Sometimes he tires of the fishbowl life, the reporters who follow his every move. They trailed him to Tokyo when he went to take his driver's license exam and followed him to North Carolina, erecting their cameras in the front yard when he returned home to bury his 94-year-old mother.

And although he is thankful to the Japanese, he often feels like screaming if he has to pose for one more tourist snapshot. He now declines to autograph the boxes of cookies thrust at him.

With a smirk, he wheels out the life-size replica he calls "the dummy" that his bosses produce for tourists when he's not there.

"The tourists have seen his face on TV so often, they consider him a movie star," said Keigo Homma, a volunteer who helps Jenkins with his Japanese. "He's about their size, not like other Americans who tower over them. So they feel comfortable with Jenkins."

Despite the annoyances, Jenkins revels in his life without barbed wire, in being free to kick-start his motorcycle and go out for a spin. Like the day the local mayor let him race down the tiny island airport's runway. "Got up to 150 miles an hour," he says with a smile. "Man, that's fast."

He has quit smoking, but he says he can still taste the harsh North Korean cigarettes that burned your lips when lighted. There are other legacies of the nightmare: On an island where sashimi is plentiful, Jenkins says he can't bring himself to eat raw fish.

He's afraid the taste will evoke the sickening feeling he had in North Korea, eating fish he was sure had fed on the bodies of starvation victims dumped into rivers.

He feels anxious about money, so he keeps working. "I can't retire, ever," he says. "I'm not living off my wife -- I'm not doing that."

He might, he says, write another book about his life in North Korea -- half for the money and half to spite Kim Jong Il. "I don't have to get his permission to do something anymore," he says.

He keeps tabs on his old captors via the news on cable TV and says he pities the two U.S. reporters being held in North Korea. They're being played like cheap marionettes, just like he was, "dancing to Kim Jong Il's fiddle."

And he does a lot of remembering. The rest of his family just wants to forget, but Jenkins cannot. So on long walks along the scenic island back roads with his Labrador named Biscuit, the dog hears his stories.

Jenkins wonders about the soldiers he left behind that night before crossing the border north: Are they alive? Would they ever forgive him?

Often, involuntarily, the mindless North Korean political tracts Jenkins was once forced to learn invade his mind. He can't help but remember the beatings he received if he didn't know them well enough, and he winces.

Struggling with Japanese, he insists that the language isn't hard because it's grammatically similar to Korean. "All I've got to do is memorize the words," Jenkins says. Then he sighs. "But I'm tired of memorizing things."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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