North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il was a known film enthusiast, or what we might call a ‘movie-buff’. He especially loved the kind of movies that portrayed America as the evil imperialist devil– but there weren’t too many of those floating around Hollywood. So to take matters into his own hands, Kim poured a whole load of humanitarian aid into building his own North Korean cinematic dream factory. All he needed were some actors to play the American bad guy. Hmm….
Fortunately for the communist movie industry, in 1965, there were some young US soldiers stationed nearby in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. One such soldier was Mr. Charles Jenkins, a 20 year old sergeant who was terrified of being deployed to Vietnam and developing a bit of a drinking habit to drown his sorrows. On January 4th, 1965, after drinking ten beers while on night patrol, Jenkins wobbled over the North Korean border and surrendered to the communist forces. It turned out to be a decision Jenkins would regret almost immediately.
Rather than being handed to Russia and then returned to America in a prisoner exchange as he had hoped, Jenkins remained in North Korea for the next forty years where he was forced to begin an unlikely career as an actor in the North Korean propaganda film industry. (This was ofcourse after he was quarantined for almost ten years in a one room house with no running water and beaten regularly while being forced to learn the philosophy of Kim Il-sung and memorize large passages in Korean).
In 1982, a North Korean film, Unsung Heroes provided the first evidence in seventeen years to the outside world that Jenkins was actually alive. He was playing the part of a (fictional) evil American doctor who masterminded the Korean War.
Here he is playing Dr. Kelton:
Jenkins was among four other U.S. servicemen in North Korea at the time that had deserted their unit, including Larry Abshier who also acted in Unsung Heroes. But there was clearly still a shortage of Americans to play the baddies and you’ll notice a lot of North Korean actors wearing bizarre make-up, wigs and western-style 70s moustaches.
Here is Larry Abshier looking pretty uncomfortable in his role as a secret police captain named Carl:
Charles Jenkins and Larry Abshier came as close to A-list movie stars as you can for white American guys living in North Korea. Their roles enabled them to socialize in higher circles and attend official events.
“I was wheeled out like a trophy,” says Jenkins who would often be introduced to foreign diplomats from the Soviet States. “They were the ones who took pity on me and would secretly give me books and movies from abroad … This is how I learnt pretty much everything I knew at the time about the outside world.”
But Jenkins insists, “If the North Koreans made one big mistake with me, it’s that they made me a goddamn movie star. It was terrible. I can’t act!”
Today Jenkins can be found selling souvenirs at a gift shop on Sado, a small and quiet island in Japan, a far cry from his career as an A-lister in communist Hollywood. With the help of the Japanese government, he escaped in 2004 with his two children and Japanese wife, who he had met after she was abducted by the North Koreans to teach English. But Jenkins isn’t exactly welcome back home in the U.S.A., the country he spent years unwillingly portraying as the imperialist enemy on the silver screen. It also probably didn’t help that during his captivity, the North Koreans wrote letters to the U.S army on his behalf stating his intention to defect. Jenkins will never be granted a pardon from the United States.
Charles told a VICE reporter after they tracked him down in Sado, “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.”
Here he is, a retired movie star, working in a souvenir shop.
For a crash course in the bizarre world of North Korea, head to the VICE Guide to North Korea.