Jenkins died on Sado Island in Japan, where he lived with his wife, Hitomi Soga, a Japanese citizen who also was held prisoner in North Korea.
Soga said she was "very shocked by this sudden incident."
Jenkins said he got drunk one night while stationed at a U.S. military unit near the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea and walked across the border at the age of 24.
He believed he would be able to seek asylum with the Russian Embassy and eventually be sent back to the United States, but was instead held captive in North Korea.
While in North Korea he appeared in propaganda films, taught North Korean spies English and spent up to 8 hours a day studying the writings of North Korean leaders.
He also met Soga during that time and the two were married in 1980 and had two daughters, Mika and Brinda.
Jenkins and the couple's two children were reunited with Soga in Indonesia two years later, as he feared being extradited back to the United States.
Upon his eventual return to the United States, Jenkins was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to less than 30 days in prison.
When he was released, Jenkins and Soga lived together in Japan where he worked selling rice crackers outside of a historical museum.
Jenkins said he regrets defecting from the United States where he is still considered a traitor by some.
He also said his marriage to Soga helped save his life while in captivity and he is credited with making the abductions of Japanese nationals a more global issue.