GI Pleads Guilty to Deserting to North Korea

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - An American GI pleaded guilty at a U.S. court martial in Japan Wednesday of defecting to North Korea four decades ago and "aiding the enemy" by teaching English to North Koreans.

Charles Jenkins pleaded not guilty to charges of encouraging disloyalty and soliciting other U.S. military personnel to desert. He will be sentenced at a later date.

The plea was presented to the military tribunal at the Camp Zama U.S. base near Tokyo two months after the 64-year-old North Carolina native surrendered to the U.S. Army.

Jenkins, a U.S. Army sergeant, disappeared during a routine patrol in January 1965 while serving along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.

He was one of tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel deployed to protect South Korea against its northern neighbor following the 1950-53 war that left the peninsula divided and technically still at war.

Jenkins told the court he deserted because he was afraid of having to lead troops on dangerous missions along the border.

He said he had agreed subsequently to teach English in the country because he was scared to refuse. "I learnt one thing: You don't say no in North Korea."

Jenkins' fate remained the subject of speculation for 39 years until he emerged from the isolated Stalinist state last July and, after a brief stay in Indonesia, flew to Japan for medical treatment relating to abdominal surgery he underwent earlier in North Korea.

Jenkins faced the possibility of serious penalties -- even life imprisonment -- but the military has indicated that it will treat him with leniency, so his guilty plea had been expected.

While in North Korea, Jenkins married a woman who was one of a group of Japanese people abducted by agents of the Kim Jong-il regime in the 1970s to teach their language and culture to North Korean spies.

At a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, Kim admitted to the kidnappings and subsequently allowed Jenkins' wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two North Korean-born daughters to leave.

Because of the political sensitivity of the abduction affair, the family's case has won widespread public sympathy in Japan, and Koizumi's government urged the U.S. for leniency.

There has been much speculation in Japan that Jenkins has sought a plea bargain, perhaps agreeing to plead guilty and cooperate in return for a lighter sentence.

That cooperation could include passing on information dealing with the long-rumored possibility that U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) are still alive in North Korea.

The Defense Department's POW/MIA Affairs Office said several years ago that it had been seeking access to a small group of U.S. defectors, known or suspected to be in North Korea, to find out what they knew about the possibility of POWs.
See Earlier Story:

Pentagon Hopes to Discuss Korean War MIAs With Defector
(Aug. 03, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow