The strange journey of Sgt. Jenkins

Japan reluctant to extradite US soldier who was AWOL in N. Korea for 39 years.

Is former US Army Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins a defector who tried to avoid the Vietnam War by crossing over to North Korea? Or was he ambushed by infiltrators, brainwashed, and led down a 40-year rabbit hole of anti-US propaganda inside the mystery world of Pyongyang?

The case of Mr. Jenkins, who disappeared across the Korean DMZ in 1965 while on patrol, and who officially turned up in Pyongyang two years ago, is already as odd as can be - part Manchurian Candidate, part Rip Van Winkle.

Yet as Jenkins arrived in Tokyo Sunday night, leaning heavily on his Japanese wife - herself abducted by North Korean spies in 1978 - and two daughters, the question is what kind of ending will be written for this strange affair, which has consumed the interest of the Japanese public and been an unwanted irritant in otherwise genial US-Japan relations.

The White House is unenthusiastically asking for Jenkins' return by Tokyo to face charges of defection, though Ambassador Howard Baker is prepared to wait indefinitely for a medical report on the North Carolina native's health. Contrary to many media reports, US officials in Asia say Jenkins is not covered by a 40-year statute of limitations that would end next spring. Nor would giving him Japanese citizenship trump the Status of Forces Agreement that requires Japan to turn him over.

The Japanese government and public, for their part, very much want a Hollywood ending to the Jenkins drama. They prefer either that the US not ask that Jenkins be turned over, or that he be given a special pardon allowing him to live happily ever after with his wife, Hitomi Soga.

Wife popular with Japanese

Ms. Soga, abducted with her mother by North Korean agents while on a trip to the supermarket, is one of the most popular among the 5 abductees that Prime Minister Koizumi got released in a breakthrough trip to visit Kim Jong Il two years ago. Dealing strongly with feared North Korea and bringing home citizens thought long lost or deceased proved a huge boon for Koizumi's popularity. In Japan, the abductees became media superstars, and Soga, who read a moving poem upon her return, is especially loved.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the Jenkins brouhaha, Japanese authorities last week arrested American chess maestro and mystery man Bobby Fischer, who had been eluding US officials since 1992. Mr. Fischer played Russian Boris Spassky in the former Yugoslavia, re-gaining his crown as the world's No. 1 player. But the trip violated US sanctions against Belgrade over its aggression in Bosnia.

As of this writing, Fischer was waiting in a Tokyo airport detention center for extradition to the US for using an illegal passport. His arrest is seen by some as a possible goodwill gesture by Japan as it lobbies the US for leniency in the Jenkins case.

Jenkins and his daughters, age 18 and 21, got on a flight in Jakarta Sunday wearing Kim Il Sung pins. Mr. Kim is the post-war founder of North Korea, Kim Jong Il's father, and an object of absolute adulation in that country. But Jenkins got off the plane in Tokyo without the pin, though his two daughters, both students at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, continue to wear the pins. Jenkins hobbled from the tarmac to a bus that took him to what is reportedly the Tokyo Women's Medical College, one used often by politicians. According to official sources in Japan, the Jenkins family will live together in the hospital until a resolution is made in the case.

"He needs treatment, and he needs to focus on getting better," said Kyoko Nakayama, an activist on behalf of the abductees, to reporters in Toyko Sunday. "Even after that, we don't want a timetable for what happens to him."

Iraq makes desertion a hot potato

Koiziumi, in a second meeting in Pyongyang on May 22, passed a note to Jenkins that reportedly gave the American assurance that Japan would not turn him over to the US. The basis for such an assurance is unclear. US officials state unequivocally that technically they have no choice but to ask for Jenkins' return. Under US law he is still absent without leave. Moreover, it is seen by some in the White House as a political hot potato in an election year with troops deployed abroad to signal that desertion is acceptable.

"At the same time, we understand the humanitarian considerations," said one US official source.

Not until Jenkins himself comes forward with his story - and possibly not even then, some Korean experts say - will the truth about his case be known. The man so eager to join the US military that at 15 he lied about his age to enlist, did tell a Japanese magazine reporter more than 35 years later that he had not wanted to fight in Vietnam in 1965.

Some facts in the Jenkins episode are known, others are disputed. It is clear that Jenkins disappeared Jan. 5, 1965. He was patrol leader on a freezing 2 am morning on the DMZ when he told three soldiers behind him to stop advancing, that he heard a noise and was going to check. He never returned. Three weeks later, Jenkins' voice was heard on the giant loudspeaker network that broadcasts across the DMZ, according to an account in Asia Times authored by J. Sean Curtin. Jenkins later starred as ghoulish US officials in North Korean films, such as one called "Nameless Heroes."

The US military determined shortly after Jenkins' disappearance that he defected or deserted. Three letters allegedly left behind in his locker are key to the case. Jenkins' relatives point out in homespun testimony on a website devoted to Jenkins that US officials no longer have the evidence of the letters, in which he addresses his "mother" and signs his name "Charles." He used the expression "mama" and signed his name "Robert," according to his family.

North Korean experts say Jenkins was living in a society whose reward system and survival would hinge directly on the fealty shown to the Kim dynasty.

One ironic backdrop to the Jenkins story in Tokyo is a long-standing dispute between the US military and the Japanese justice system over the status and rights of US servicemen accused of serious crimes. The Koizumi administration has requested leniency and special consideration to Jenkins. Yet it has been unwilling for many years to agree to allow ordinary US soldiers, sent to serve abroad, any guarantees of basic legal rights common to the US and British systems, if they are brought to justice in Japan, sources say.

Bennett Richardson in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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