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Risking Extradition, Ex-GI Goes to Japan

The alleged defector is ill and his wife is popular among Japanese, posing a dilemma for the U.S.

July 19, 2004|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Steadied by a cane and his wife's grip on an elbow, former U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins stepped off a plane and onto Japanese soil Sunday, placing himself in the legal line of fire from an American government that has promised to prosecute him for allegedly defecting to North Korea almost 40 years ago.

Japanese authorities immediately whisked Jenkins, 64, to a Tokyo hospital, where he will undergo tests and possible treatment for an undisclosed abdominal illness. Washington has promised to postpone any extradition request for at least as long as Jenkins is under medical care.

The frail-looking former soldier flew to Tokyo from Indonesia, which, unlike Japan, has no extradition treaty with the United States. He and his two adult daughters spent an emotional, nine-day reunion in Indonesia with Jenkins' Japanese-born wife, Hitomi Soga, who was repatriated alone from North Korea in 2002.

His presence in Japan sharpens the diplomatic dilemma facing the Bush administration.

On one hand, Washington has made clear that it intends to seek custody of Jenkins, who disappeared across the Korean peninsula's demilitarized zone while on patrol in 1965 after telling other soldiers that he wanted to investigate a noise. Shortly afterward, he said over a loudspeaker that he had found a socialist paradise in North Korea. Over the years, he appeared in North Korea's anti-American propaganda.

The administration is unwilling to bend on punishing serious military crimes, especially while it has troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the U.S. is also sensitive about stirring up anti-American resentment in Japan, its foremost ally in Asia and a country divided over its military participation with U.S.-led forces in postwar Iraq. Washington is wary of being seen as a villain in the Jenkins affair by tearing apart a family already scarred by a tragic history of separation.

There is an emotional clamor in Japan to allow Jenkins to stay, prompting the government to ask the Bush administration to waive extradition on humanitarian grounds.

Jenkins' apparently serious medical condition gives both sides a respite to try to finesse a compromise.

"The man is in terrible shape," U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr. told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday. "His health circumstances are barely short of extreme."

Baker said Washington was in no hurry to demand custody of the alleged defector, though the administration insisted that Jenkins would eventually be charged.

But the two governments are clearly seeking a way out of the impasse. Last week, Baker met senior Japanese government officials, who later told local reporters the ambassador suggested that Jenkins offer a plea bargain. Baker also reportedly dismissed the possibility that the former soldier would face the death penalty if convicted of desertion and aiding the enemy.

The Japanese officials said they interpreted the remarks as Baker's personal opinion, not U.S. government policy.

Japan's concern is not so much for the fate of Jenkins, toward whom the public remains largely indifferent, as for the 45-year-old Soga, who has become a beloved figure over the last 22 months while struggling to bring her family together in her native land.

She is now the star of a real-life drama the Japanese media have portrayed as a tragic love story in search of a happy ending.

The country has taken Soga to its collective heart since learning the details of her life story. She was kidnapped by North Korean agents as a teenager in 1978 and taken to the communist country to teach Japanese to its spies. Her mother, who was shopping with Soga when she was snatched near her home on a northern Japanese island, has not been seen since -- a fate Soga did not learn until her release.

Soga came home in 2002 with four others after North Korea confessed to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, at its first summit with a Japanese leader, that its agents had abducted Japanese citizens. The North Koreans allowed the five to leave with Koizumi at the time for a "visit" to Japan. None has returned.

By the time of her repatriation, Soga had been married to Jenkins for 22 years -- he had been assigned in 1980 to teach her English -- and the couple were raising two daughters. But Jenkins refused to leave North Korea, remaining behind with the children, fearful that he would be sent back to the U.S. to face the Cold War-era charges.

His wife's anguish has been on national display ever since. Newspapers published her poems of longing for her family; television showed her making hundreds of paper cranes to will her family home. Her family members "want to live in Japan," she declared, and the phrase became a national cry.

The media obsession is such that both Japanese national airline carriers offered to donate the aircraft and crew for Sunday's flight from Indonesia.

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