Charles Jenkins, a former U.S. Army soldier who deserted to North Korea in 1965 and was kept there for decades, died on Monday in Japan at the age of 77, Kyodo News Agency reported.
Jenkins collapsed outside his home in Sado, Japan, and died of heart failure, according to local reports.
Jenkins disappeared in January 1965 while patrolling the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea – while drunk off of 10 beers – to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.
Jenkins’ plan was to seek asylum with the Russian Embassy and return to the U.S. in a prisoner swap, Fox News reported. However, his plan didn’t work, as the Russian Embassy refused to grant asylum.
He later called his decision to defect to North Korea a mistake. Jenkins was forced to read the works of North Korean leaders like Kim Il Sung, teach English and suffer from hunger, beatings and non-consensual medical procedures such as cutting off a U.S. Army tattoo without anesthesia, Fox News reported. He also played an evil U.S. spy in a North Korean propaganda film.
While in North Korea, Jenkins met his wife, Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman who had been kidnapped by North Korea in 1978 to teach Japanese to North Korean spies.
Soga and Jenkins lived in an unheated home in Pyongyang raising their own vegetables and chickens to make up for the struggling food rationing system.
Soga was allowed to return to Japan with four other abductees in 2002 after a visit to Pyongyang by then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Jenkins and his daughters, Mika and Blinda, were allowed to join Soga in Japan two years later.
Jenkins was subject to a U.S. court-martial in which he pleaded guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy. He spent 25 days in a U.S. military jail in Japan and was dishonorably discharged.
Jenkins and his family moved to Sado, Japan, where he worked at a souvenir shop while also taking pictures with tourists.