TOKYO (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier who deserted to North Korea more than half a century ago, but who was eventually allowed to leave the secretive state, has died in Japan aged 77.
One of the Cold War's strangest dramas began in 1965 when Charles Robert Jenkins, then a 24-year-old army sergeant nicknamed "Scooter" from tiny Rich Square in North Carolina, disappeared one January night while on patrol near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
At an emotional court martial in Japan in 2004, Jenkins - who had never gone to high school - said he deserted to avoid hazardous duty in South Korea and escape combat in Vietnam.
RELATED: US soldier Charles 'Scooter' Jenkins through the years
US soldier Charles 'Scooter' Jenkins through the years
US soldier Charles 'Scooter' Jenkins through the years
Accused U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins receives training September 17, 2004 on his new job duties as an assistant to the U.S. Army Garrison Japan Headquarters and Headquarters Company training noncommissioned officer. The training was provided to Jenkins by Staff Sgt. Andrew Rogerson, the USAG-J training NCO, at Camp Zama. Jenkins will assist in coordinating unit training and maintaining company training files. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY REUTERS/U.S. ARMY/Spc. Matthis Chiroux/Handout TA/CP
Charles Robert Jenkins (R), a former U.S. Army sergeant who fled to North Korea in 1965, stands with his 91-year-old mother Patty Casper on the porch of his sister's home in Weldon, North Carolina June 14, 2005. Jenkins returned to the United States on Tuesday for the first time in four decades. REUTERS/Rick Wilking RTW/KS/CN
Former U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins (RC) looks on after arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia June 14, 2005. Jenkins, 65, deserted to North Korea from South Korea during the Cold War and now lives in Japan with his wife. This is Jenkins' first trip to the U.S. in 40 years which he reportedly intends to spend visiting his elderly mother in North Carolina. REUTERS/Shaun Heasley SH/KI
Former U.S. Army deserter to North Korea Charles Jenkins shows off his book "To Tell the Truth" during a news conference to mark its publication in Tokyo October 12, 2005. Jenkins, husband of Hitomi Soga, one of at least a dozen Japanese abducted by North Korean agents, authored the memoir of his four decades in secretive North Korea with hopes that the book might help contribute to solve the abduction issue. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao PP05100128
Former U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins (C) walks past members of the news media after arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia June 14, 2005. Jenkins, 65, deserted to North Korea from South Korea during the Cold War and now lives in Japan with his wife. This is Jenkins' first trip to the U.S. in 40 years which he reportedly intends to spend visiting his elderly mother in North Carolina. REUTERS/Shaun Heasley SH/KI
Former U.S. Army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, who deserted to North Korea four decades ago, faces reporters at a town hall of his Japanese wife Hitomi Soga's hometown Sado on the Japan Sea coast December 7, 2004. Given a dishonourable discharge, Jenkins left U.S. Army camp Zama earlier in the day with his family, and said that he wanted to live "his remaining days" on the island. REUTERS/Eriko Sugita ES/TW
Former U.S. Army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins (L), who deserted to North Korea four decades ago, and his Japanese wife Hitomi Soga receive bouquets in welcome on arrival at a town hall of Soga's hometown Sado, in northern Japan December 7, 2004. Given a dishonourable discharge, Jenkins left U.S. Army camp Zama earlier in the day with Soga, who returned to Japan two years ago, and their daughters Mika and Brinda, to begin their new life on the remote island. REUTERS/Eriko Sugita ES/TW
Accused U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins receives training on how to use a computer from Staff Sgt. Andrew Rogerson, the U.S. Army Garrison Japan training noncommissioned officer and Jenkins's supervisor, September 17 at Camp Zama. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY REUTERS/U.S. ARMY/Spc. Matthis Chiroux/Handout TA
Former U.S. soldier Charles Robert Jenkins (2nd-L), who Washington accuses of deserting to North Korea, his wife Hitomi Soga (L), and their two North Korean-born daughters Mika (C) and Belinda (2nd-R) arrive by bus on the tarmac of Jakarta's Sukarno Hatta airport before boarding their flight to Japan July 18, 2004. Jenkins, who the United States says deserted in 1965 and later joined the North's propaganda machine, was reunited in Jakarta last week with his Japanese wife Soga, who he met in North Korea after she was kidnapped by Pyongyang's agents in 1978. Woman on (R) is an unidentified Japanese official. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside DW/FA
U.S. army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins (C) arrives at Camp Zama, near Tokyo to attend his court martial in this image taken from television November 3, 2004. Jenkins pleaded guilty on Wednesday to deserting to North Korea at a court martial that will decide his fate and end a Cold War drama that began four decades ago, a witness said. Jenkins, now 64 and frail, is on trial at a U.S. military base near Tokyo. Japan has asked for leniency for him out of sympathy for his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga. The couple met and married after she was abducted to North Korea in 1978. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE REUTERS/U.S. Army/Handout CP
U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins, an accused U.S. Army deserter, receives his first Army haircut at a Camp Zama barber shop in Zama, west of Tokyo September 13, 2004 since returning to U.S. Army jurisdiction on Saturday after 39 years. The haircut, part of his in-processing procedures, allows him to comply with U.S. Army grooming regulations for all active duty soldiers. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY REUTERS/U.S. Army/Handout TA/CP
- PHOTO TAKEN 18JUL04 - American soldier Charles Robert Jenkins, accused of deserting to North Korea in 1965 and now in hospital in Tokyo, is seen arriving at Haneda airport July 18, 2004. [Jenkins said September 1, 2004 that he was willing to report to the U.S. military in Japan to face charges, a step towards resolving a diplomatic standoff between Tokyo and Washington. Jenkins arrived in July for medical care after being reunited in Jakarta with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, former abductee by North Korea.] Photo taken July 18.
Hitomi Soga, abducted by North Korea decades ago and now reunited with her former U.S. army sergeant husband Charles Jenkins, speaks to reporters in Tokyo July 26, 2004. Jenkins, accused of deserting to North Korea, has asked to speak to a U.S. military lawyer, a spokesman for the U.S. military forces in Japan said on Monday. REUTERS/Eriko Sugita ES/CP
U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins leaves a hospital in Tokyo September 11, 2004. Jenkins was to surrender on Saturday at Camp Zama, the U.S. Army's headquarters in Japan west of Tokyo, to face charges that he deserted to North Korea on a wintry night four decades ago while on patrol in South Korea. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao YN/TW
Former U.S. army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, [who Washington says deserted to North Korea four decades ago], is escorted by his Japanese wife, former abductee Hitomi Soga as they arrive at Tokyo's Haneda airport July 18, 2004 after being reunited in Jakarta last week. [The United States maintains its rights to try Jenkins, but may delay doing so out of respect for his health, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker said on Saturday.]
Former U.S. army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, accused of deserting to North Korea in 1965, walks hand-in-hand with his Japanese wife Hitomi Soga, followed by their North Korean daughters Mika (far-L) and Belinda as they arrive at Tokyo's Haneda airport July 18, 2004 from Indonesia. Jenkins was taken directly to hospital for medical treatment. REUTERS/Eriko Sugita ES/LA
Former U.S. soldier Charles Robert Jenkins waves upon arriving at a Jakarta hotel from North Korea in this July 9, 2004 file photo. Jenkins, whom Washington has accused of deserting to North Korea, will travel to Japan on Sunday for medical care, a Japanese government source said after signs that Washington would not seek custody while he was in hospital. The United States says Jenkins deserted in 1965 and later joined the North's propaganda machine. He was reunited in Jakarta last week with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, whom he met in North Korea after she was kidnapped by Pyongyang's agents in 1978. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside/File
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"It was Christmas time, it was also cold and dark. I started to drink alcohol. I never had drunk so much alcohol," he said in a thick Southern accent, choking back sobs.
He drank 10 beers, took his men on patrol and told them to wait while he checked the road below. He then walked towards North Korea, holding a rifle with a white t-shirt tied around it. He said he had planned to go to Russia and turn himself in, and had not expected North Korea to keep him.
While in North Korea, where he taught English to soldiers and portrayed an evil U.S. spy in a propaganda film, Jenkins met and married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman 20 years his junior who had been kidnapped by North Korea to help train spies.
Fear for his safety and the family he built with Soga made it impossible to refuse any demands made on him, Jenkins said.
"You don't say no to North Korea. You say one thing bad about Kim Il-sung and then you dig your own hole, because you're gone," Jenkins told his court martial, referring to the founder of the secretive state.
Soga was allowed to return to Japan in 2002 and Jenkins followed with their two North Korean-born daughters in 2004.
After serving a token 30-day sentence for desertion, Jenkins moved with his family to Sado, Soga's rural hometown, late in 2004. He subsequently worked in a gift shop and wrote a book about his experiences in North Korea.
A Sado town official confirmed his death, but could give no further details.
(This version of the story fixes typo in first paragraph)
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Michael Perry)