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Travis King isn't the 1st U.S. soldier to enter North Korea. Here's a history

Charles Jenkins (left), age 64, his wife Hitomi Soga (second from left) and their daughters arrive at Japan's Sado island in December 2004, almost 40 years after he defected to North Korea.
Jiji Press
/
AFP via Getty Images
Charles Jenkins (left), age 64, his wife Hitomi Soga (second from left) and their daughters arrive at Japan's Sado island in December 2004, almost 40 years after he defected to North Korea.

A U.S. soldier is reportedly being held in North Korea after bolting across the border, becoming the first American service member to do so in over four decades.

It is still unclear whether Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King intended to defect, though experts say a trip to the Demilitarized Zone takes days of planning. U.S. officials say he crossed "willfully and without authorization."

The 23-year-old had been stationed in South Korea, where he was recently imprisoned on assault charges, and was due to fly back to the U.S. to face military disciplinary action.

Instead, he ditched his escort at the airport and made his way to the Korean border village of Panmunjom, where he joined a tour — dressed in civilian clothes — and ran across the military demarcation line at the last stop.

"We believe he is currently in [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] custody and are working with our [Korean People's Army] counterparts to resolve this incident," U.S. Forces Korea spokesperson Col. Isaac Taylor said in a statement.

North Korean officials are likely interrogating and screening King to determine what to do with him, says historian Erik Scott, the author of a book about Cold War defectors.

"They have in the past both imprisoned defectors but also used them for propaganda, having them star in films, using them either as themselves in these films or as American soldiers to portray the U.S. side in an unflattering light," Scott told Morning Edition on Wednesday.

About a half-dozen American service members have crossed the border since the Korean War ended in 1953, a relatively small group whom Scott says loom large in North Korean propaganda. The last such case was in 1982.

That number doesn't include the several American civilians who have been detained in North Korea over the years — such as college student Otto Warmbier, whose death in 2017 (after he was released in a coma) prompted the U.S. to ban American citizens from traveling to the country, with which it has no diplomatic relations.

While many may think of defection as a political choice between ideologies, Scott says he learned from his book research that peoples' motivations are often very mixed. Some face problems at home, some — like King, evidently — face disciplinary issues and others act on a whim.

"What's remarkable about it is that through this act, although it's a very dangerous one and has very serious consequences, they're catapulted from relative unknowns into international celebrities of a sort that everyone is talking about," Scott adds.

Even so, it's been a while since such defectors have been in the headlines. Here's a look back at their stories.

Pvt. Larry Allen Abshier

Abshier was the first U.S. soldier to defect to North Korea after the Korean War, crossing the border at the age of 19 in May 1962.

He had been deployed to South Korea the previous year and was caught smoking marijuana on duty several times, according to NK News, an American news site headquartered in South Korea.

"They were going to court-martial him or kick him out of the Army," said Pfc. James Joseph Dresnok, who defected several months after him. "Instead of going back to his old life, he just came over to the DPRK."

Abshier and Dresnok were eventually joined by two more Americans: Cpl. Jerry Wayne Parrish in December 1963 and Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins in January 1965.

The four lived together in a two-bedroom house outside of Pyongyang, where they were forced to study the writings of then-leader Kim Il Sung and were subject to regular beatings. They were also featured prominently in propaganda magazines and movies.

The men became famous for playing evil Americans in a 20-part film series called "Nameless Heroes," documentary filmmakers Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner told NPR in 2007, adding that they were still referred to by their characters' names even decades later.

They were offered North Korean citizenship in 1972. NK News reports that when Jenkins asked what would happen if they refused, a government official said, "Then you won't be here tomorrow."

Abshier died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 40. While he had grown up in Ohio, his tombstone reportedly listed Pyongyang as his birthplace.

Pfc. James Joseph Dresnok

Dresnok dashed across the border in broad daylight in 1962 out of frustration.

He was divorced, serving on DMZ stakeout posts and about to be court-martialed for forging his sergeant's signature to visit a woman, he told the 2006 documentary Crossing the Line.

"I was fed up with my childhood, my marriage, my military life, everything," he said. "There's only one place to go."

By the time the documentary was released, he was being billed as the last American defector still in North Korea.

Gordon and Bonner, the filmmakers, said time had seemed to pass Dresnok by.

"He left America in 1962, and really the last time he was there regularly was 1959," Gordon told NPR. "So his accent and his dialect and his use in vocabulary is from a 1950s American, and without any external influences. ... And elements like landing on the moon, Cuban missile crisis, they all sort of seem to have passed him by."

They said that while the other defectors regretted their decision, Dresnok essentially decided not to run any further. He told the filmmakers that he wouldn't leave North Korea "if you put a billion damn dollars of gold on the table."

And despite his reeducation, they said, he had managed to retain his individuality and some independence. He was still going fishing regularly at the time, for example.

Dresnok married a woman from Romania who said she had been tricked into traveling to — and forced to remain in — Pyongyang, according to Jenkins' book. Their two sons released a video in 2017 saying he had died of a stroke the previous year.

Cpl. Jerry Wayne Parrish

Nineteen-year-old Parrish was patrolling the demilitarized zone in 1963 when he dropped his supplies and crossed the border, according to the Kentucky newspaper The Gleaner.

He left a note on top of his rifle: "Tell mother I love her. I'll be back home someday. Tell my friends goodbye."

It's not clear why Parrish, who reportedly had an unblemished service record, defected. His mother was convinced at the time that he had been captured.

Radio Pyongyang said he had been concerned about his job prospects after the Army and heard that everyone in North Korea had a job, The Gleaner reported.

During his years in North Korea, Parrish — who was apparently one of the best actors in the propaganda series — married a Lebanese woman and had three sons.

There are conflicting reports of his death: Jenkins testified during his court martial that Parrish died in 1996 of an abdominal infection, though the Crossing the Line documentary says he died of kidney disease in 1998.

Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins

Charles Robert Jenkins pictured in January 1965.
Korean Central News Agency / AP
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AP
Charles Robert Jenkins pictured in January 1965.

Jenkins was stationed in the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea in 1965 when, drunk on 10 beers, he walked across the border to avoid facing combat duty in Vietnam.

The U.S. Army sergeant, who was 24 at the time, later called that "the biggest mistake I ever made." He said he thought he would be handed over to the Soviet Union and eventually returned to the U.S. in one of their semi-regular Cold War-era prisoner exchanges, as NPR reported.

"I know I was not thinking clearly at the time and a lot of my decisions don't make sense now, but at the time they had a logic to them that made my actions seem almost inevitable," Jenkins wrote in 2008 in The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea.

Jenkins spent his first eight years in North Korea being held in a small room with three other American defectors, forced to read the works of North Korean leaders and subject to frequent beatings. At one point a doctor sliced the "U.S. Army" tattoo off of his forearm without anesthesia, The New York Times reported.

He later appeared in propaganda movies and leaflets, and taught English to North Korean spies and military cadets.

Several years later he married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese citizen who had been kidnapped by North Korea as part of an effort to teach the language and culture to spies. (North Korea admitted in 2002 to abducting more than a dozen Japanese citizens during the '70s and '80s).

Soga returned to Japan after she was released in 2002, and Jenkins and their two daughters were allowed to join her in 2004 — more than 39 years after he first crossed the border.

Jenkins pleaded guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy at his court martial. He was demoted to private and dishonorably discharged, spent 25 days in a U.S. military brig and was debriefed for two months about his knowledge of North Korea.

He lived with his family on Japan's Sado Island — where he worked as a greeter at a tourist attraction and never fully stopped looking over his shoulder — until his death in 2017 at age 77.

Pfc. Roy Chung

There were two more notable defections in the decades that followed.

In 1979, Chung (born Chung Ryeu Sup) reportedly surfaced in North Korea two months after disappearing from his unit in West Germany. The 22-year-old South Korean immigrant was not a U.S. citizen, but had joined the U.S. Army the previous year reportedly for education benefits.

The Washington Post reported at the time that Chung had originally been classified as a deserter, but that officials had little reason to doubt Pyongyang Radio's announcement that he had defected to North Korea because he "could no longer endure the disgraceful life of national insult and maltreatment he had to lead in the U.S. imperialist aggressor Army."

Chung's parents told the newspaper they believed he was abducted by North Korean agents. He is believed to have died some time around 2004, Radio Free Asia reports.

Pvt. Joseph T. White

White defected in August 1982 by shooting the lock off a border gate in the early morning hours and walking through. The Korea Times reports that he carefully made his way around minefields, yelling "I am coming" and calling for help in Korean.

Eyewitness reports and the United Nations Command later confirmed that nearly a dozen North Korean soldiers apprehended him and led him into a bunker.

White's parents insisted he would not have defected — his mother described him in an interview that month as "nothing but gung-ho Army, a gung-ho patriot, and gung-ho Reagan."

North Korean propaganda leaflets were found in his belongings (though many young soldiers reportedly collected them) and North Korea released a video in which White criticized the U.S. government and claimed he had defected to demonstrate how "unjustifiable [it was] for the U.S. to send troops to South Korea."

A U.S. military investigation concluded the following month that White had indeed defected, though his parents — despite receiving a "warm" letter from President Ronald Reagan — continued to struggle to come to terms with that.

"It just doesn't make any sense," his mother, Kathleen, said in one interview. "Why would Joey want to leave his ice cream, his chocolate syrup [and] his money?"

White wrote his parents a single letter in February 1983. He said he was doing well and working as an English teacher for North Korean students, and expressed love for his family, but did not say anything about what had happened the previous year.

His family got another letter from North Korea in 1985, reportedly written by a friend of White's, informing them that he had drowned while swimming in a river during a picnic with friends.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.