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Commentary (June 7, 2004)

A Thorny Issue in US-Japan Relations: The Strange Saga of Charles Robert Jenkins

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 Japan.

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 Korea.

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 improves."

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 States."

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 human being.

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,, and is republished with permission.)

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