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The strange saga of U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Jenkins
Lee Wha Rang

Photo: Jenkins as Col. Klaus, the CIC commander, in the Unsung Heroes, a North Korean spy thriller.

Scores of American servicemen have defected to N Korea during the Korean War and several more since the armistice. Of these, US Army Sgt. Robert (Charles) Jenkins is the most famous for two reasons: (1) Jenkins became a popular movie star (Song Dae-won) in North Korea and (2) he married a Japanese woman abducted by North Korean spies.

The Pentagon has released the names of four US soldiers who deserted to N Korea in 1960's: Pvt. Larry A. Abshier defected unit in May 1962 at age 19. Cpl. Jerry W. Parris, from Morganfield, Ky., defected in December 1963 at age 19. Pvt. James Dresnok, from Norfolk, Va., defected in August 1962 at age 21. Sgt. Robert Jenkins, from Rich Square, N.C., defected in January 1965 at age 25.

Two other American soldiers deserted to N Korea after the War and are believed to have died there. They are Pvt. Joseph White and Ryan Sup Chung. White was a member of the 2nd Infantry Division, and Chung was with a unit based in Germany. White lived in St. Louis, defected in August 1982 and apparently drowned in 1985 in N Korea.

Jenkins was a squad leader assigned to guard the Demilitarized Zone near Panmunjom. On January 5, 1965, he was on a patrol with his squad when he told his men that he heard something and that he would check it out himself. He never came back. Military investigators found several letters left behind by Jenkins. The letters stated that he was defecting to North Korea for a better life.

According to the US Army, one of the letters said: "I am sorry for the trouble I will cause you. I know what I have to do. I am going to North Korea. Tell family I love them very much. Love, Charles." Jenkins' relatives believe that he was kidnapped by the North Koreans and that the US military is covering it up for some reason. The Army has lost Jenkins' letters.

It is believed that about a dozen former American servicemen worked in North Korea as English teachers and movie actors. Abshier, Dresnok and Jenkins appear as Americans in the Unsung Heroes, a North Korean movie on the exploits of Communists spies in South Korea. Jenkins plays Col. Klaus the US CIC commander. The American actors speak in English in the movie. Jenkins also plays Gen. Walker, the US 8th Army commander, in another North Korean movie - The People and Its Destiny.

Jenkins taught English at a school in Pyongyang. He met, fell in love, and married a student in1980. They were a happy couple and raised two daughters. Jenkins' family was torn apart in 2002 when Jenkins learned that his Korean wife was in a fact a Japanese woman, Hitomi Soga, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978 when she was a teenager.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had a summit meeting with Kim Jung Il and Kim came clean on the Japanese abductees and agreed to let them visit Japan briefly. Soga and other abductees were allowed to go to Japan on the condition that they would return after a short visit, but they reneged on the promise and refused to return to North Korea where they left behind families.

The abductees wanted their family members come to Japan but North Korea insisted that the abductees must return to North Korea first. Koizumi made another trip to Pyongyang to break the impasse. Kim agreed to forgive the abductees' broken promise and let their families go to Japan. But Soga's husband Jenkins and their two daughters refuse to go to Japan because Jenkins fears, justifiably, that the US Military will grab him and put in jail for desertion. Koizumi pleaded with Bush to pardon Jenkins but Bush refused to be nice an American traitor in the camp of that 'evil dwarf, Kim Jong Il.'

Jenkins wants Soga to come back home but Soga is afraid that Pyongyang may punish her for her broken promise to return home. North Korea and Japan had to work out a compromise: Soga would meet her husband and daughters in Jakarta. Indonesia has no extradition treaty with the United States and so Jenkins would be safe in Indonesia. Japan will send a charter plane to Pyongyang to pick up Jenkins and the two girls - along with some North Korean officials. The Japanese government will pay all expenses.

The dramatic reunion is expected to boost Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the election for parliament's Upper House as well as the momentum of North Korea-Japan normalization. Japan wants to break loose from Bush's anti-North Korea cold war and join South Korea, China, and Russia in nurturing friendly relations with Pyongyang.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from Korea Web Weekly.

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