How forced marriage saved a US defector in North Korea
Every night before going to bed, US defector Charles Jenkins turned to Hitomi Soga, the woman North Korea had forced him to marry, and kissed her three times.
“Oyasumi” he said, using her native Japanese. “Goodnight”, she replied in English, the language of his North Carolina childhood.
“We did this so we would never forget who we really were, and where we came from,” Jenkins wrote in his memoir.
Theirs is a dark, strange, compelling tale – and finally, a love story.
Trapped in the hermit kingdom known for its famines and labour camps, the pair were united by one of its less noted hazards: prisoner matchmaking.
Jenkins, who died on Monday aged 77, staggered into North Korea on a bitter night in January 1965.
Aged 24, he was drunk and depressed. A US Army sergeant stationed on the South Korean side, he worried he would catch a stray bullet patrolling the border. Or worse, be sent away to his death in Vietnam.
Jenkins knew defecting was risky, but figured he would claim asylum at the Russian embassy and make it home in a prisoner swap. He would later write: “I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes there, they almost never get out.”
Meet the four defectors
North Korea duly took him captive, and a four-decade ordeal began.
Jenkins was held in a Spartan single room with three other GIs who had deserted since 1962 – Pte James “Joe” Dresnok, a 6’5 giant of a man; Pte Larry Abshier – believed to be the first US soldier to defect to the North; and Cpl Jerry Parrish, just 19 when he went over, who said that if he ever went home to Kentucky his father-in-law would kill him.
The four were forced to study the teachings of then-leader Kim Il-sung for 10 hours a day, and beaten regularly by their captors. Desperate – and desperately bored – they tried to make their own fun “stealing government property, or going on daredevil hikes,” as Jenkins wrote in his book “The Reluctant Communist”.
In 1972, the defectors were finally given separate homes and declared North Korean citizens – though they still endured constant surveillance, beatings and torture.
They taught English at a military school (which eventually fired Jenkins over his southern drawl), and were ordered to play evil Americans in a 20-part series of propaganda films, a move that made them instant celebrities.
Another set of orders was more surprising still. The four men were paired off with female prisoners of the regime, all foreigners, and forced to marry.
Why would North Korea bother? For Jenkins, the rationale was clear: he believed Pyongyang was running a spy breeding programme, and would train their Western-looking children to serve as agents abroad.
While the four US soldiers took their own paths to the communist kingdom, the same was not true of the women they married.
North Korea has only admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens, but Jenkins claimed their wives, all from different countries, were abducted by its secret service.
‘I wasn’t letting her go’
Hitomi Soga, who would become Mrs Jenkins, was a 19-year-old nurse in 1978 when she was seized from her home island of Sado, off Japan’s west coast. She had been kidnapped to serve as a teacher, training North Korean spies in Japanese language and behaviour. Ultimately, her nationality would buy her husband a future he could never have dreamed of.
When the pair wed in 1980, Jenkins had spent 15 years alone in Pyongyang’s frosty embrace. He later told CBS: “I’ll put it like this. I looked at her one time. I wasn’t letting her go.”
The newlyweds had nothing in common but a passionate hatred of North Korea – yet gradually, they fell in love.
Over 22 years, Jenkins and Ms Soga found a measure of happiness. They were grateful for each other. Two daughters followed; Mika, now in her mid 30s, and Brinda, two years younger.