All Slammer, No Glamour: The Reluctant North Korean Film Star

As far as strange and unusual punishment goes, being forced to be a film star rates highly.

22 September 2009, 5:15pm

On January 4th, 1965, a confused young sergeant in the US military named Charles Jenkins drank ten beers before setting off on his nightly patrol duty along the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, where he had been serving for the past year. Having previously been shuffled back and forth between South Korea and US outposts across Europe, he feared his next deployment would be in war-torn Vietnam. Replaying in his mind the horror stories he’d heard of the battles going on in south-east Asia and afraid of dying in the jungle, in his boozy haze he made a snap decision. Drunkenly he stumbled over the border into North Korea with his hands in the air, giving himself up to his communist enemies. He would remain there for forty years before escaping.

And what would you do to pass the time if you were in North Korea for forty years? That’s right, you’d grab socialist realism cinema by the balls and become its bad ass movie star, garnering a nation of adoring fans in the process, who will love you as much as their dictatorial despot leader will let them get away with.

Tracking down the fugitive Sgt. Jenkins, who finally escaped in 2004, isn’t as hard as I expected it to be. It turns out that he has traded in his celebrity status on the communist frontier for a quiet life selling rice cakes in a gift shop on the small island of Sado, a three-hour ferry ride off the north coast of Japan. But that’s an open secret.

So, to Sado I did go. It took me a whole day of snooping around and asking questions in the island’s remarkably large number of gift shops before I found out exactly where he would be. Eventually I found myself at the Sado Island History Museum, which, at the back, contains its own little souvenir shop. Inside that shop was an aged Sgt. Jenkins, pottering about with the few old Japanese lady co-workers on a souvenir display stand.

At 79 years old, Jenkins is, like most other old people, a wrinkled husk of a chap. Depressingly, his bright blue eyes emit a boyish sense of distress and longing. I guess being a movie star isn’t so fun when you’re being forced into it by a totalitarian government threatening you with prison. Oh, and if you are wondering why they forced him – I guess someone has to play the evil American imperialist leader in every North Korean anti-US Sunday afternoon propaganda movie, don’t they? It’s better than whiting up.

I didn’t have any kind of official meeting set up with the guy – he doesn’t really do interviews – so I had to be careful in how I approached him and what I asked. Never educated and from humble roots, he still speaks in a thick Southern American drawl, which, through his aged jaw-line, is particularly hard to make sense of. "Ma Korean’s betta than ma English, I tell yer," he says as we get chatting by a biscuit display case he’d been tending to.

I tell him, sincerely, that I came out to the island specially to meet him as I was interested in his story and wanted to try and add a human element to my understanding of North Korea. A look of despair comes across his face. People like me, I am informed, turn up semi-regularly, all hoping to hear stories from his life he’d rather not recount daily. He starts with a disclaimer, which amazingly manages to sound part gung-ho soldier talk and part automated response mechanism at the same time.

"I know a whole load of things I could never tell anyone... things that would get the US into more trouble with the rest of the world than you can imagine. But I can’t tell you, and I will never tell anyone, because that was the part of the deal. That’s why they let me off the hook, because I promised not to tell anyone the things I know"

So I ask him about life on Sado Island instead. "My whole family is here now," he tells me. My daughters have settled here too. One is 26 and works in the elementary school. My wife was trained as a nurse, but the North Koreans kidnapped her from Japan to teach Japanese to Koreans but she was no good at it because she wasn’t trained properly. Now she works in the old person’s home here. I’m not welcome in America any more because I’m a traitor, which is why I’ve come to live here, as it’s where my wife’s from."

When I ask him about what he does to pass the time on Sado Island, he proudly reaches behind the cashier’s desk and pulls out a tattered copy of Mr. Bike magazine, which has a huge picture of him on the cover, sitting on a Harley the size of a baby whale. "Now I just like biking. Every day for me living on this island is like a holiday. It’s just a peaceful place where I can live without having to think about the past."

Jenkins escaped North Korea after being allowed to travel to Indonesia for medical treatment. With the support of the Japanese government, they enabled him to flee to Japan. However, after the U.S. government refused to grant him a pardon, Jenkins decided to clear his conscience by standing trial for his betrayal all those years before. But from what he tells me about the trial – something he speaks about far more freely than anything that actually happened to him inside North Korea – he seems to have enjoyed it. A smile breaks across his face as he tells me. "A lawyer from South Korea came over to Japan and did everything for me for free. My time in prison was like a vacation! Remember, I was still technically a sergeant when I left North Korea, so they still had to pay me... I was in prison getting paid! Every day I was in there I was working with intelligence anyway – it was all a big set-up for the outside world so it looked like justice was done. After all, I betrayed my country and people wanted to see me get punished for that – but I was just helping the government with what I knew. They just gave me the shortest sentence possible with a week off for good behaviour so it didn’t seem like I was let off the hook."

Jenkins wrote a book about his experience in North Korea that was a best-seller in Japan and has subsequently been translated into English. Having put it out there, he’s not keen to speak much more about his past. When I ask him about a particularly cruel and unproductive interview he did for US current affairs show 60 Minutes he says, "Yeah, he was pretty tough on me but maybe I deserved it." He then turns to a young Japanese man, working inconspicuously on a stall beside him, and asks the guy to clarify a few trivial details of when that interview was and how he had travelled there.

The Japanese man answers back in perfect American English. Why would this guy be working here? Surely a well-built bi-lingual dude with a chiselled jawline can get a better job than selling cakes on an island in the middle of nowhere? My guess is that he’s some kind of government bodyguard or spy, stationed both to protect Jenkins and make sure he keeps certain secrets secret.

As we walked around the shop a little longer, Jenkins talked about North Korea and how he never had any freedom to do what he wanted, how there was never enough food, how he hated it but mostly he’s unspecific about his experiences. I don’t push him.

He shows me some pictures of his family when they were back in North Korea before they escaped, and soon comes to one of a small girl called Megumi, photographed with his own daughter. "Megumi is still in North Korea now," he tells me sadly. "She was the daughter of one of the other Japanese women the North Koreans kidnapped. I don’t know if she’ll ever be able to leave. It’s a tragedy. Yup."

I mention I’d heard of his A-list movie star past, to which he responds with a sarcastic snort. "If the North Koreans made one big mistake with me," he says, "it’s that they made me a goddamn movie star. I had to play the American bad guy in all their movies. It was terrible. I can’t act! But by doing that, it’s true, I became a bit of a celebrity. It meant I got to socialise in higher circles. When foreign diplomats, normally from other Soviet states, came to visit on business I usually got to meet them. I was wheeled out like a trophy."

"Even though these people I met were from socialist countries, they often weren’t as bad as the North Koreans and their societies were comparatively freer. They were the ones who took pity on me and would secretly gave me books and movies from abroad; they were the only ones with the power to do so. This is how I learnt pretty much everything I knew at the time about the outside world."

He leans into me, out of earshot of the guy I suspect is his bodyguard. "Sometimes they’d also smuggle me other things too, but I’m not at liberty to say anything more about that for now."

And at that, a group of ten Japanese pensioners with massive neon sun visors and expensive SLR cameras appear at the entrance. Politely but abruptly Jenkins excuses himself. "Sorry, I have customers," he says, and  then heads off to tend to them.


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