Free for the first time in nearly four decades, US Army deserter Charles Jenkins sobbed with joy as he was released from a military jail yesterday after serving 25 days for abandoning his squadron and crossing the border into North Korea in 1965.
The frail 64-year-old, still in uniform and carrying a heavy duffel bag, broke down in tears after arriving at this US Army base, where he was flown by Blackhawk helicopter after completing his sentence at a nearby naval prison.
When asked how he felt, he told reporters he was "happy," and then sobbed for several moments.
"Forty years is a long time," he said.
The release ends the longest desertion case on US record. American deserters from the 1940s are still on the military's wanted list, but not one has turned himself in.
Jenkins, a native of Rich Square, North Carolina, testified in his Nov. 3 court-martial that he fled his Army post in South Korea on Jan. 5, 1965, because he had heard rumors that he was to be reassigned to combat in Vietnam. He said he didn't intend to stay in the North -- instead, he had planned to defect to the Soviet Embassy there and eventually make his way back to the United States.
The communist regime in Pyongyang, however, kept him for 39 years, along with three other American deserters.
Jenkins was joined later yesterday by his Japanese wife and two daughters, both born in North Korea.
"My plan is to stay in Japan, if they will accept me," he said. "I want to go back to the United States, but only once. With my wife, I'll live in Japan, with my family."
Jenkins has said that North Korea used him as a propaganda tool in broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and that he was forced to teach English to North Korean military officer cadets.
Two of the other three Americans have since died, but the third, James Dresnock of Richmond, Virginia, still lives in the North. Dresnock was a private when he crossed into North Korea in 1962.
During his court-martial, Jenkins described a harsh existence.
A turning point came in 1980, when he met and married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman who had been abducted by North Korean agents in 1978 to teach Japanese language and culture to its spies.
The marriage was what got Jenkins his freedom.
At an unprecedented summit in 2002 with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted that his country had kidnapped Soga and several other Japanese and allowed her and the four other survivors to return home.
Jenkins initially stayed behind, but Soga's effort to reunite her family generated great sympathy in Japan. In July, Tokyo arranged for Jenkins and his two North Korea-born daughters to join Soga in Jakarta, Indonesia.
They were then flown back to Japan, ostensibly because he needed emergency medical care for an abdominal problem.
Jenkins was discharged from a Tokyo hospital on Sept. 11 and immediately turned himself in to American authorities at Camp Zama, the US Army's Japan headquarters. In a plea bargain, he was sentenced to a month in prison.
He was released five days early for good behavior.