Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 9 News List

US deserter to N Korea presents a real puzzle

By Richard Halloran

In the strange case of Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, four seemingly obscure people have been caught up in diplomatic maneuvering among the US, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China and Indonesia.

The issue: the US Army wants to arrest Jenkins on charges of desertion and aiding the enemy -- among the most serious of military crimes -- to keep faith with the hundreds of thousands of American men and women who have served honorably over the past 40 years and to preserve good order and discipline.

In contrast, the Japanese government and a wide segment of the Japanese public want to see an aging and ailing Jenkins reunited permanently with his wife, a Japanese citizen, and their two daughters, and allowed to live out his life peacefully.

Jenkins's nieces and nephews in North Carolina, who have heard little from him for 40 years, assert on the Internet (www.charlesrobert that Jenkins is a prisoner of war who has been abandoned.

"We believe that the US Army deserted my uncle," says an entry on the Web site.

And, from all appearances, North Korea, South Korea, China and Indonesia want the issue quietly to go away and not interfere with larger issues, notably negotiations intended to defuse North Korea's aspirations to acquire nuclear arms.

This convoluted tale begins in South Korea in 1965 when Jenkins disappeared while on a patrol in the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. Shortly after, he turned up in Pyongyang.

In 1978, North Korean agents kidnapped Hitomi Soga and her mother near their home in Japan and took her to Pyongyang. There Soga, now 45, met Jenkins and married him in 1980. They produced two daughters.

Not much was heard from them until Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea in 2002 and brought back Soga and four other kidnapped Japanese. Since then, Soga has been pleading with Japan, the US and North Korea to allow her husband and daughters to join her.

The family was reunited in Jakarta on July 9.

The question is whether the US will take custody of Jenkins under the Status of Forces Agreement, which sets the conditions under which US troops are stationed in Japan. It applies to Jenkins because desertion has no statute of limitations and he is considered to be still under military jurisdiction.

Besides desertion and aiding the enemy, both of which could be punished by death, Jenkins has been charged with urging two other soldiers to desert and with two instances of encouraging disloyalty.

Jenkins's family in North Carolina have asked that the charges be dropped. In a letter to US President George W. Bush, Susan Cutting, a niece, wrote: "It is very hard to believe in our system of government when men like [former US president] Richard Nixon get pardoned for their crimes and men like [former US president] Bill Clinton commit perjury and do not get [removed from office].

"Vietnam War deserters and draft dodgers got pardons and I believe my uncle should also," Cutting said.

"He is an old man; much older from the pictures than his 62 years. If, in fact, he is a deserter and defector, I believe he has paid enough for his crimes," she said.

After Bush met Koizumi in Georgia last month, an administration official said the president expressed "an understanding of why the Japanese public and why the prime minister want to do everything they can to help find a humanitarian answer to this real puzzle." Bush also noted that the charges against Jenkins are serious.

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