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Alleged Defector Back on U.S. Radar Screen

Tokyo is said to be seeking a pardon for an American so he and his Japanese wife can leave North Korea, which abducted her in 1978.

October 24, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO -- Is he a defector, an aging movie star, a loving husband or all of the above? Inquiring minds at the Pentagon would like to know about Charles Robert Jenkins, who has been in North Korea for more than three decades after allegedly defecting from the U.S. Army.

They'd also like to learn about his reclusive host's nuclear and security programs and the existence of other Americans in North Korea.

The rest of the world may get a chance to ask him. According to a report by the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun on Wednesday, Tokyo has asked Washington to grant a special pardon so that the former soldier and his wife can come and live in Japan. But Jenkins first wants to make sure that he won't be thrown into jail for years.

Jenkins' wife, 43-year-old Hitomi Soga, one of at least 13 Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, is in Japan this week visiting relatives. But a permanent return could hinge on her husband's status with Washington.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, said the Japanese government "has brought the matter to our attention." He said he could not confirm that a pardon request had been made.

"The important thing to remember here is that Mr. Jenkins is a deserter and that is a crime," Davis said. "I wouldn't want to speculate on what might happen to him."

Japanese government officials declined to confirm that they are pushing Jenkins' case.

"Jenkins is in a difficult position because if he's allowed to come to Japan, the U.S. will definitely want him returned," said Hajime Izumi, professor of Korean studies at Shizuoka University. "And if that happens, it would be difficult for the Soga family to return to Japan as well. That's why the Japanese government is asking the U.S. to pardon him."

Jenkins' brother-in-law, Lee Harrel, reached by telephone in North Carolina, said Japan's involvement was welcome. "I think we're moving in the right direction," he said. "But I'm just waiting to see what goes on."

Analysts say, however, that they doubt Washington will let the former sergeant off the hook because it is loath to set a precedent. There are at least three other suspected U.S. Army defectors in North Korea -- Pvts. Larry A. Abshier and James Dresnok and Spc. Jerry Wayne Parrish.

Jenkins, 62, of Rich Square, N.C., population 1,000, said a week ago that he would "like to visit Japan, but it's not easy," according to Japanese officials. They saw him at North Korea's Pyongyang International Airport, they say, as he and his two daughters saw off his wife, one of five abductees allowed to visit Japan. North Korean officials say the other eight abductees have died.

Jenkins, who was based in South Korea, went missing Jan. 5, 1965, while on patrol about six miles from the village of Panmunjom near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Officials in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, announced three weeks later that he had defected. Some U.S. MIA groups are skeptical, however, pointing out that defection reports from North Korea are notoriously untrustworthy.

"I'd like to see him have a chance to give his side of the story," said Dolores Apodaca-Alfond, chairperson of the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America's Missing Servicemen. "If he has to pay something, OK, but so much has happened, and it's been so long now."

Jenkins has been largely out of the public eye for the last three decades, with the exception of an appearance in the North Korean propaganda movie "Unknown Hero," which chronicled the 1950-53 Korean War from Pyongyang's perspective.

Jenkins, Abshier and Dresnok were identified in the 20-part black-and-white series playing U.S. counterintelligence and policy planners.

Unlike her husband's case, there's no question that Soga's border crossing was involuntary. Soga, still a teenager at the time, was out shopping for groceries with her mother the evening of Aug. 12, 1978. Suddenly, three men jumped them from behind, dragged them under a large tree and stuffed them into bags, according to a Japanese fact-finding team.

Soga and her mother were placed on a small boat and transferred at sea to a larger vessel. She never saw her mother again.

After arriving in North Korea, Soga underwent obligatory training in the Korean language and North Korea's customs and ideology. Eventually, she started studying English. Her teacher was Jenkins, and they were married in 1980.

"The circumstances of their meeting are simply eerie," the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said Monday. "But Jenkins now thanks his wife for making him a family man, and Soga says she is happy."

As Soga and her fellow abductees have become reacquainted with Japan over the last week, they have had to weigh the tug of family members back in North Korea against the freedom but wrenching culture change of life outside -- assuming that Pyongyang lets them go. All five have children in North Korea, who, some of their relatives contend, are essentially hostages, thus ensuring that their parents return.

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