Deserter Recalls N. Korean Hell

Charles Jenkins Shares His Story Of A Hard Life Under Abusive Regime

This segment was originally broadcast on Oct. 23, 2005.

In 1965, Charles "Robert" Jenkins, an American soldier, did something impossible to understand. He deserted to North Korea and got stuck there.

For 39 years, six months and four days, he was trapped in a bizarre Stalinist state — hungry, suffering, told by the government how to live, what to read, and even when to have sex. Never before has an American lived among the secretive North Koreans so long and escaped to tell the tale.

Correspondent Scott Pelley reports.

When he deserted, Jenkins essentially stepped off the world. He had not driven a car in 40 years; he didn't know what a Big Mac was. As 60 Minutes first reported in 2005, Jenkins told Pelley he had never heard of the CBS News program but hoped to get his story into Life magazine, which stopped publishing as a weekly in 1972.

Robert Jenkins tells his story, an American Rip Van Winkle who, one night, crossed a minefield into a nightmare.

"Thinking back now, I was a fool. If there's a God in the heaven, he carried me through it," said Jenkins.

"Robert, if God in heaven carried you through it, you ended up in hell," said Pelley.

"That's it. Yeah. I got my punishment," Jenkins replied, in a drawl showing his roots in North Carolina, where he grew up in a large but poor family.

Jenkins dropped out of high school and joined the military. In 1964, he volunteered for a second tour on the hostile border between North and South Korea.

He was a sergeant, a squad leader, but had been thinking about deserting to the north. On a subzero night, he downed 10 beers and led his men on his last patrol.

"Well, I told them I heard something and I would be back in a few minutes. I would go and check it out. And I left and I started walking. Started walking north," Jenkins recalled. He now realizes that he had abandoned his troops.

What would he tell the men from that squad watching the interview? "I apologize for leaving them. They had faith that I would take them through. But I betrayed them," said Jenkins.

He told 60 Minutes he betrayed them and his country because, on the border, he was being asked to lead more aggressive, provocative patrols, and that scared him. He was also hearing his unit might ship out to Vietnam.

Instead, he walked through the night and surrendered to an astonished North Korean soldier. Jenkins was 24 years old.

Jenkins says he knows he made a mistake. "I made a lot of mistakes in my life, maybe, but that was the worst mistake anybody ever make. That's for sure."

What was Jenkins thinking? Jenkins says he was no communist sympathizer and imagined the North Koreans would send him to Russia and the Russians would trade him to America in some sort of a Cold War swap. It's a nice plot for a novel but not the script North Korea had in mind.