Charles Jenkins

Charles Robert Jenkins - From Poor Youth in North Carolina to 40 Years in Pyongyang to Living Legend on Sado Island

Johannes Schonherr

Sado Island, off the coast of Honshu in the Japan Sea is a beautiful but harsh and remote place.

Located in Niigata Prefecture, Sado is far from the population centers in Kanto and Kansai. In medieval times, Sado Island was close to the edge of the world.

Sado was thus a perfect place for banishment. For centuries, the Japanese government sent people judged as undesirable but too popular to be executed out to the island. Like the deposed Emperor Juntoku (1197 - 1242), the Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222 - 1282), founder of the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism and the influential early Noh playwright Zeami Motokiyo (1363 - 1443).

Sado History and Legend Museum, Niigata Prefecture
Sado History and Legend Museum, Niigata.
Animated model of Empress Keiko, the first wife of exiled Emperor Juntoku, Japan.
Animated model of Empress Keiko, the first wife of exiled Emperor Juntoku.

Sado History and Legend Museum 佐渡歴史伝説館

The Sado History and Legend Museum (Sado Rekishi Dentetsukan) in Mano Town on the West Coast of Sado recreates some of the stories of those medieval exiles via elaborate displays involving animated life-size dolls and amazing optical effects. They certainly put on a good show.

The most famous living legend of Sado however is working in the sembei (rice cracker) store that doubles as the museum's gift shop.

Charles Robert Jenkins plays the captain of the USS Enterprise in the North Korean movie The Confrontation.
Charles Robert Jenkins plays the captain of the USS Enterprise in the North Korean movie The Confrontation.
Jenkins (center, with glasses) in Unknown Heroes, a North Korean spy movie series, picture signed by Jenkins.
Jenkins (center, with glasses) in Unknown Heroes, a North Korean spy movie series - picture signed by Jenkins.

Meeting Charles Robert Jenkins

After you pass through the exhibition halls you arrive at a small smoking area separating the museum from the sembei store. A sign posted there reads: "Now I'm the happiest I've ever been." It bears the signature of Charles Robert Jenkins.

Jenkins works as the store's greeter or rather as its mascot. He doesn't actively approach anyone but he is present. Throngs of Japanese tourists seek him out and have their photos taken with him. "Jenkins-san! Shashin! (Mr. Jenkins, photo!)," the Japanese store attendants call out after tourists make a polite request.

Jenkins will then line up with whatever group of visitors and have his photo taken. He doesn't smiles doing so. He's not an actor after all - but wait - he was in a few movies and for a while even became sort of a movie star.

A movie star in North Korea, that is. He played evil Dr. Kelton, the "mastermind behind the Korean War" in Unknown Heroes, a 20-part spy movie serial shot from 1979 to 1981. He stood in as the captain of the USS Enterprise, the aircraft carrier, in The Confrontation (1990), fighting a sea / air battle between the USS Enterprise and the North Korean air force.

Never mind that the battle never happened in reality. It was a North Korean propaganda movie and it was dead-set serious about showing how the North Koreans defeated the Americans.

Jenkins (left) with the author at the sembei store.
Jenkins (left) with the author at the sembei store

The Charles Robert Jenkins Story

Jenkins, born in 1940, grew up a in poor small town working class family in North Carolina. Joining the Army was one of the few options he had to improve his lot. That's what he did.

Soon bored by his state-side service, he volunteered to be deployed to South Korea because he had heard that fast-track career opportunities were available there. The rumors turned out to be true. Jenkins, still very young, quickly rose through the ranks.

After a deployment to West Germany, he went for a second tour of South Korea. This time, though, he had to go on dangerous patrols right at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating South Korea from the North.

Small scale shoot-outs between the South and North were frequent in the early 1960s and Jenkins thought the patrols to be suicide missions. When a cousin also serving in Korea informed Jenkins that he might soon get transferred to Vietnam, Jenkins panicked.

The Army was a way of life for Jenkins. He liked the discipline, the daily routine, the food, the pay - but he was not going to die for it. Crossing over to North Korea seemed to be a good idea to escape the looming threat of the Vietnamese jungle. The North Koreans would certainly hand him over to the Soviet Union and the Soviets in turn would hand him back to the U.S. once things had calmed down a bit.

That's at least what he told his biographer Jim Frederick about his thoughts at the time much, much later.

One night in January 1965, Jenkins drank ten beers before he went on night patrol duty. During that night patrol, he told his fellow soldiers to wait while he was investigating the safest way.

Instead, Jenkins walked straight through the DMZ to the North Korean side. He successfully crossed the mine fields and reported to a soldier at a North Korean guard post.

He was arrested, interrogated and brought to Pyongyang. There he joined three other American soldiers who had, for various reasons, voluntarily crossed the DMZ before him.

They all soon found out that they were trapped in North Korea. They were to stay - no chance that they would be handed over the Soviet Union and eventually the U.S. The North Koreans just kept them.

For the next couple of years, while living under very poor circumstances, Jenkins and his compatriots did not much else than memorizing the works of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader of North Korea - in Korean. That's how they learned the language - memorizing tome after tome of Kim Il Sung's writing in the original.

Eventually, the four American defectors were made English conversation teachers at a military academy in Pyongyang, the capital, received North Korean citizenship and brides for them were picked.

The bride chosen for Jenkins was a young Japanese girl named Hitomi Soga. She was a native of Mano, Sado Island and had been kidnapped right off the street in her home town after a visit to the local grocery store with her mother. Her mother was kidnapped as well but has so far never been heard of again.

Sado Legend Museum flyer.

It was more or less a forced marriage but Jenkins and Soga actually fell in love with each other. Despite the age difference, Jenkins was almost 20 years older than Soga, they strongly bonded.

In 2002, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. During the meeting, he confronted Kim over the abducted Japanese citizens. Surprisingly, Kim Jong Il admitted to the kidnappings and presented a list of five abductees living in North Korea. Hitomi Soga was on the list. Koizumi secured the return of the five to Japan. Their return was supposed to be temporary but soon after their arrival all five abductees decided that they would not go back to North Korea.

Jenkins and Soga had by then two teenage daughters and Soga's decision to stay in Japan split the family. Jenkins wanted to be reunified with his wife and their daughters wanted to be with their mother. Where could they live in the future if that opportunity would arise at all? Would Soga ever return to Pyongyang?

Jenkins was afraid that Japan would hand him over to the U.S. authorities for his desertion back in 1965. He expected a severe prison sentence as he had by then aided the enemy with his English teaching and his appearance in North Korean propaganda films.

Japanese diplomats arranged a meeting of the family in a neutral country - Indonesia. Indonesia would not hand Jenkins over to the U.S. authorities but it would also not force Soga back to North Korea.

In 2004, Jenkins and his two daughters went to Jakarta for the meeting - and Jenkins opted for Japan. The North Koreans minders traveling with him had no way of stopping him and his daughters to leave Pyongyang for good.

Once in Japan, Jenkins reported to the American army. He was sent to military court but received a light sentence of 30 days served in a brig near Yokohama. After that, he was a free man.

He joined his wife on Sado Island and was warmly welcomed by the Sado residents.

He soon found a job in the gift shop of the Sado Gold Mine but later changed to the much more appropriate Sado History and Legend Museum where he is still employed today.

The Pyongyang love & marriage story of Jenkins and Hitomi Soga received extensive press coverage in Japan. Their story sounded like a perfect example of true and absolute mutual commitment even under the most trying circumstances. It turned Jenkins and Soga into national heroes.

On December 11th, 2017, Charles Jenkins died aged 77.

Further reading: The Reluctant Communist, by Charles Robert Jenkins, co-written with Jim Frederick, University of California Press, 2008

Jenkins' book co-written with Jim Frederick.
Jenkins' book co-written with Jim Frederick.

Sado History and Legend Museum Info

Sado History and Legend Museum (in Japanese)
Address: Niigata-ken, Sado-shi, Mano #655
Tel: 0259 55 2525

Access: The central bus terminal for the west coast of Sado is in Sawata. Take a bus to Sawata, change there to an Ogi Line bus and take it to Mano Goryo stop. The Sado History and Legend Museum is about a 5 minute walk from the Mano Goryo bus stop.

Opening times: from April 16th to October 31st: 8am to 5:30pm
from April 1st to April 15th and from November 1st to November 30th: 8am to 5pm
from December 1st to March 31st: 8:30am to 4:30pm
no closing days

Tickets: Adults 800 yen, children 400 yen

The Sado History and Legend Museum on google maps

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