Saturday, April 08, 2006

Charles Jenkins: Prisoner of Pyongyang

A shy man, Charles Jenkins' whole demeanor, from the sad, wary eyes encased in a heavily lined face to the apologetic body language, seems crumpled, as though worn out from the 39 years, six months and four days he spent as a Cold War trophy in North Korea and the daily effort of having to readjust now, aged 66, to a very different life.

"I got used to North Korea. You get beat in the face every day and you're expecting it. You don't care no more."

Jenkins' extraordinary life reads like a spy novel, and can be divided, like the best drama, into three distinct acts.

The first was his upbringing in a poor community in North Carolina, where he dropped out of school, aged 15, to join the US Army. Act One ended on a freezing January night in 1965 when, drunk and unhappy, he deserted his post in the Demilitarized Zone, which divides the two Koreas and defected to the North; one of the very few Americans to trade life under Uncle Sam for Uncle Kim. Today he calls that "the biggest mistake I ever made".

So began Act Two, behind the bamboo curtain, where he claims he was beaten, starved and robbed of his identity, eventually becoming Min Hyung Chang. He was saved, he says, by Hitomi Soga, the Japanese woman he married and who was 19 when Pyongyang’s spies abducted her with her mother in 1978.

Now Jenkins is in what seems certain to be the final act of his life, which began in September 2002, when an astonished world learnt of this Rip Van Winkle figure in the wake of a summit between the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il.

[Excerpt from an article by David McNeill, The Independent]

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