A Thorny Issue in US-Japan Relations: The Strange Saga of Charles Robert
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
The issue of an American soldier defecting or deserting to North Korea
almost 40 years ago has become nettlesome in otherwise sunny US-Japan
relations: The Charles Robert Jenkins saga. Was he, is he, a deserter, a
defector, or a captive of Pyongyang?
While Washington was remembering its war dead and veterans on Memorial Day
(this past Monday), Tokyo was frantically drawing up plans for dealing with
a former US soldier the administration of President George W Bush would
rather forget. In a throwback to the Cold War days, the future of the
enigmatic Charles Robert Jenkins, who allegedly defected - others say he
deserted - to North Korea in 1965, now lies at the heart of a convoluted
dispute involving Japan, the United States and North Korea.
The issue is causing tension in US-Japan relations and dominating the
bilateral agenda, much to Washington's irritation. On another level, the
Japanese public is fascinated by the extraordinary life story of Jenkins,
now 64, which seems more suited to the fictional pages of a spy novel than
to the realm of reality.
Jenkins first came to Japan's attention in September 2002 as a result of
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's first and groundbreaking visit to
Pyongyang. An astonished Japan learned that the obscure American was the
husband of Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman whom North Korean leader Kim
Jong-il confessed his country had abducted in 1978. After 24 years of
captivity, she was allowed to return to Japan with four other Japanese
abductees in October 2002. Soga was forced to leave Jenkins and their two
daughters behind in the reclusive communist state.
On May 22 this year, Koizumi made a second controversial visit to Pyongyang,
negotiating the release of five of the seven abductee-children who had
become virtual hostage-bargaining chips in bilateral talks. The five were
finally allowed to go to Japan for a reunion with their parents. However,
despite Koizumi's best efforts, Jenkins and his two daughters refused to
join this group. If the elderly American sets foot on Japanese soil, or any
other nation that has a status of forces agreement or an extradition treaty
with the US, he still faces extradition and being sent to the United States
for court martial. The statute of limitations for desertion is 40 years.
The Bush administration repeatedly has made clear that it intends to
court-martial the Cold War defector, while Tokyo wants him pardoned or at
the very least given "special consideration". For Koizumi, it's a political
imperative to resolve the issue before the Diet (parliament) Upper House
elections on July 11. Washington, however, has made it clear that it will
not give an inch. Forgiving a deserter/defector, or even a captive who
stayed on, is not going to build morale among US troops in Iraq.
The current stalemate is putting Koizumi in a tight corner while the
stranger-than-fiction Jenkins yarn has almost become a media fixture in
Jenkins' strange tale
The saga of Charles Robert Jenkins began on an icy winter night almost four
decades ago along the southern boundary of the bleak Demilitarized Zone
(DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. According to US military records released
in 1996, Jenkins disappeared at 2:30am on January 5, 1965, while leading a
four-man patrol in a wooded area about 10 kilometers south of Panmunjom.
Saying he heard a noise, the young Sergeant Jenkins signaled his three-man
squad to halt while he went ahead to investigate the suspicious sound. His
comrades waited, but their leader never returned. He had vanished into the
shadowy realm of North Korea. Little is really known of what happened to him
after that cold midwinter night.
At the time he went missing, Jenkins, then 24, was serving with the 8th
Cavalry. He was a well-regarded army veteran, having enlisted in 1955 at the
age of 15. Despite his long service record, the US Army did not believe he
had been captured, but instead listed him as a defector to communist North
The army's conclusion was based on four letters it says Jenkins left behind
in his barracks. According to the US military, they strongly indicated that
he was contemplating defection. In one letter, reportedly discovered in his
footlocker and addressed to his mother, he wrote a farewell message.
According to the US military, it read: "Forgive me, for I know what I must
do. Tell my family I love them. Love, Charles."
His family in North Carolina, who have never been allowed to see the
letters, claim they must be fake, pointing out that Jenkins never used
"Charles" but always either signed letters "Robert" or used his nickname
"Super". They have always maintained he is a captive and not a deserter, a
claim the US military dismisses.
Three weeks after vanishing, North Korean state radio announced that Jenkins
had defected to gain a "better life" in the communist state. Jenkins and the
three other US deserters later appeared on the cover of Fortune's Favorites,
a North Korean propaganda pamphlet published around 1965. It is believed
Jenkins also made several radio broadcasts in support of Pyongyang during
the late 1960s.
Jenkins next surfaced in the 1980s in a widely viewed North Korean
propaganda movie titled Nameless Heroes, Chapter 20. In the fiercely anti-US
film, Jenkins plays a sinister US intelligence official, who looks like a
cross between Count Dracula and a creepy Samurai warrior in a business suit.
During the 1990s, there were rumors that Jenkins and other American
deserters were still alive in North Korea. In 1996, a Pentagon internal
assessment report officially classified Jenkins as a deserter, although his
whereabouts and what he was doing were unknown.
Jenkins re-emerges from the void
In September 2002, it was suddenly announced that Jenkins was living in
Pyongyang and married to Hitomi Soga, a Japanese national abducted to North
Korea in 1978. For the first time in almost four decades, Jenkins' North
Carolina relatives had some concrete news about his situation. The
surprising development was also a great shock to Soga's family, who had no
idea she had been abducted. In August 1978, the then-19-year-old trainee
nurse and her mother, Miyoshi, suddenly disappeared. The mother is still
missing, but incredibly North Korea claims it did not abduct her.
It was revealed that Hitomi Soga met Jenkins when she made a request to
learn English. It appears Jenkins was working as an English teacher,
possibly coaching spies. A romance soon blossomed between the two, who were
both cut off from their homelands. The couple tied the knot on August 8,
1980. Following the Korean custom, Soga retained her maiden name after
marriage. Their union produced two daughters, Mika, now 20, and Belinda, 18,
both of whom are students at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies.
Since returning to Japan in October 2002, Soga has been tight-lipped about
her husband, only giving the vaguest of outlines about her life with a man
nearly 20 years her senior. She once commented, "My husband is kind, though
we sometimes argue." She also said Jenkins once told her he would be killed
if he left North Korea. It is not known how well the two communicated or in
which language they conversed.
Since Soga's homecoming, many articles about Jenkins have appeared in the
Japanese media, their frequency sharply increasing after Koizumi's recent
visit. The most commonly circulated picture of him shows a smartly dressed
elderly man standing beside his two bright-eyed daughters. All three are
wearing a Kim Jong-il lapel pin, a sign of allegiance to the regime.
Shortly after Soga's repatriation, Japanese diplomat Akitaka Saiki met
Jenkins and his daughters by chance at Pyongyang International Airport.
Jenkins mentioned his fear of a court martial in the US, reportedly telling
Saiki, "It might be difficult for me to visit Japan, until my situation
In November 2002, Jenkins caused a storm of protest in Japan when he gave an
interview to the Japanese weekly publication Shukan Kinyobi. He was quoted
as praising Kim Jong-il.
In one of the most interesting parts of the interview, Jenkins said he had
no idea about his wife's past. Jenkins said Soga did not tell him she had
been abducted to North Korea until just two weeks before her departure for
Japan. He also said that when he and the daughters saw Soga off at the
airport on October 15, 2002, he was under the impression she would return
within 10 days. Tokyo initially agreed that Soga and the other abductees
would be sent back to Pyongyang after a 10-day period, but later reneged on
the arrangement. It appeared the former hostages were not eager to return.
Jenkins meets Koizumi
A sign of just how important the Jenkins case has now become is illustrated
by the fact that Koizumi met with the alleged defector for an hour during
his brief one-day trip to Pyongyang on May 22. He did his utmost to persuade
the American, whose two daughters were also present, to go to Japan.
The prime minister reportedly passed the former soldier a hand-written memo
stating that Jenkins "shall not be handed over to the US without consent
from the Japanese government". However, Jenkins was not satisfied with the
assurances of the Japanese leader, instead wanting something official from
the US government confirming he would not be arrested. Japanese sources
quoted Jenkins as saying, "If so, I may think about going to Japan." Despite
the rebuff from the erstwhile language teacher, the premier politely
replied, "We will make every effort, including trying to convince the United
The college-student daughters reportedly told Koizumi that before thinking
about going to Japan, "We want our mother to first come home" to Pyongyang.
These comments are similar to ones the elder daughter, Mika, made to Shukan
Kinyobi in November 2002. However, Soga has publicly stated that she will
"never" return to North Korea.
Jenkins also informed Koizumi that he knew from reading Japanese media
reports that Howard Baker, the US ambassador to Japan, had stated Jenkins
would be court-martialed if he entered Japan. Just prior to Koizumi's
departure, Baker told the Japanese press, "The fact that it's been a long
time ... does not change the fact that he is still classified as a
deserter." The ambassador added, "If he is returned to the custody of the
United States, he will be dealt with according to the provisions of our
military justice." US Secretary of State Colin Powell later reinforced this
message, saying, "With respect to Sergeant Jenkins, he is a deserter from
the United States Army and remains so."
The ongoing military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan make it impossible
for President Bush to be lenient with Jenkins. Even though Jenkins deserted
in 1965, the statue of limitation is 40 years. Wartime desertion is
punishable by long confinement or the death sentence. Senior military
figures say that not to convene a court martial would be seen as betraying
the millions of military personnel who perform their duties in dangerous
circumstances and would erode military moral. However, some argue that
living in North Korea for 38 years is probably punishment enough for any
To try to break the deadlock, Koizumi proposed a reunion in a third neutral
country. Jenkins and his daughters were apparently very receptive to this
idea. The suggestion was originally made by Kim Jong-il, who told Koizumi,
"If he still refuses to go, why not have them meet in Beijing?"
Asked what the US thought of this idea, a bored-looking Colin Powell said,
"We understand that arrangements are being made for his wife and children to
see him at another location at some point in the future." Crucially, he
added that the United States would not object to this arrangement. Thus the
focus has now shifted to where the reunion will take place.
Jenkins to meet wife in neutral country
Beijing was initially the favored venue, as Kim had suggested it. However,
Soga told Japanese officials she was unhappy with that location and was
"scared" to go to "a place which is closely linked to North Korea". Soga
added, "I want the government, if possible, to think about a location other
than Beijing." Soga also said she hopes to meet at a place where English is
a common language and her family can feel relaxed. Koizumi commented, "I
have already ordered a place to be found that takes Ms Soga's desires into
consideration. It doesn't have to be Beijing."
The Japanese government is compiling a list of suitable countries with no US
extradition treaties, status of forces agreements or criminal investigation
cooperation treaties. The media are awash with possible locations, including
Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Mongolia, Switzerland and a
Chinese city other than Beijing. Officials have said it may take a few weeks
to arrange the reunion.
At the moment, however, Indonesia is emerging as the front-runner because it
has diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and no extradition treaties with the
United States. Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz has also welcomed the
idea of hosting the reunion.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry official, who did not wish to be named, told
Asia Times Online that Koizumi is even considering temporarily relocating
the entire family to a third country, until the statute of limitations runs
out on Jenkins in early 2005. This would offer an immediate solution to the
problem and given Jenkins and his family a clear schedule for relocating to
Japan some time next year.
Some commentators believe that because Pyongyang views Jenkins and his
daughters as bargaining chips, Japan will have to negotiate hard to get it
to accept a non-Beijing rendezvous. While arrangements for an overseas
reunion are being hammered out, the government is also making plans for
permanently relocating Jenkins and the two daughters in Japan.
Washington also wants to resolve Jenkins' case
Successfully reuniting Soga and her family is a top priority of the Koizumi
administration, with a quick resolution vital before the Upper House
elections next month. Under present circumstances, it seems highly unlikely
that Bush will grant Jenkins a pardon, so a temporary relocation to a third
country until 2005 is probably the best option for Jenkins. This, of course,
is provided Tokyo can arrange it with unpredictable Pyongyang.
Washington will no doubt also be secretly relieved if Koizumi succeeds. Once
the premier has resolved the issue, he can focus his full attention on the
serious problem of North Korea's nuclear program. This is something the Bush
administration has been urging him to do, while finding the entire Jenkins
affair highly annoying.
As for Jenkins, if he does make it to Japan, we may finally learn what
happened to him on that cold winter night way back in 1965. Did he really
defect as the evidence appears to indicate, or was he captured and
brainwashed as his family and supporters claim? Whatever his true story, it
will probably be more unbelievable than fiction.
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia
Times Online on 4 June 2004, http://www.atimes.com, and is republished with
Koizumi's Pyongyang Hostage Gamble
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North Korea's Mystery Guest
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Koizumi's Perilous Pyongyang Summit
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Koizumi Plays his North Korean Trump
J. Sean Curtin, Asia Times, 1 October 2003
Koizumi Trades Baghdad for Pyongyang
J. Sean Curtin, Asia Times, 18 March 2003