- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

A former U.S. Army sergeant suspected of defecting to North Korea in 1965 is likely to face prosecution for desertion even though his case is nearly 40 years old, the U.S. ambassador to Japan said.
Japanese officials have been pressing the United States for leniency in the case of Charles Robert Jenkins, who in 1980 married one of the five Japanese kidnapping victims who were allowed to return home for the first time in October, almost 25 years after being abducted by North Korean agents.
A North Carolina native, Mr. Jenkins, now 62, is accused of defecting to communist North Korea after leaving his U.S. Army post along the South Korean border in 1965. Tokyo officials have asked officials in Washington to pardon Mr. Jenkins. U.S. officials have not yet responded.
"I am really sympathetic to the man, but still he is classified as a deserter, and the matter has to be dealt with according to law," Ambassador Howard Baker told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo this week. "My impression is that the statute of limitations, whatever it is, would not begin to run until he was back in the United States or in American custody."
Mr. Jenkins is married to Hitomi Soga, 43, who has been in Japan since Oct. 15 with the four other Japanese nationals who were abducted to North Korea in 1978. The couple has two teenage daughters.
It is not clear if Mr. Jenkins wanted to come along with his wife to Japan. In a recent interview with a Japanese news magazine, he expressed concern that he might be extradited to the United States if he left North Korea.
Mr. Jenkins said he taught English in North Korea from 1972 to 1980, and occasionally played minor parts in movies. The Jenkins' daughters attend a university in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
For 37 years, the question has been whether Mr. Jenkins was a deserter or was kidnapped by North Korean communists.
Mr. Jenkins is one of about a dozen former American soldiers thought to be living in North Korea, according to Dolores Alfond, national chairwoman of the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America's Missing Servicemen (NAFRAMS).
In 1996, a Pentagon study classified four of them, including Mr. Jenkins, as deserters and the rest as soldiers captured during the Korean War.
The Army has maintained that Mr. Jenkins deserted his post, citing several departure notes found in his barracks before he disappeared on the morning of Jan. 5, 1965.
"As far as the military is concerned, Sgt. Jenkins is in a deserter status," U.S. Army Maj. Steve Stover said this week. "We believe Mr. Jenkins went over to North Korea on his own free will. There was no evidence that he was abducted."
U.S. officials recently told the Japanese that authorities would arrest Mr. Jenkins if he visits Japan and seek to court-martial him. If Mr. Jenkins is found guilty, he faces up to five years in prison. The Army could also forfeit his pay and allowances and dishonorably discharge him.
Maj. Stover said Army intelligence would want to ask Mr. Jenkins about his experiences in North Korea before deciding whether to bring any charges against him.
Mr. Jenkins' family, however, believes he was not a deserter.
Mr. Jenkins' nephew, James Hyman, said his family believes the departure notes are fake and that his uncle and other American soldiers were kidnapped by North Korean soldiers to win propaganda points in the Cold War and to gain native English speakers for their spy schools.
"We believe he was kidnapped," Mr. Hyman said in a telephone interview from his home in Dallas, N.C. Mr. Hyman, 41, was 4 years old when he last saw Mr. Jenkins.
"My uncle loved the military way too much. He was happy with the military way of life, and he was proud of the military uniform he wore," he said.
Mr. Hyman said he plans next week to send President Bush a letter asking him not to prosecute Mr. Jenkins as a deserter. "We just want Mr. Bush to let my uncle go to Japan and stay there so at least he can live happily with his family," Mr. Hyman said.
The family has worked with NAFRAMS, which is based in Washington state, to try to resolve Mr. Jenkins' case. NAFRAMS officials in 1997 arranged for Mr. Jenkins' family to meet with North Korean officials, who in turn assured the family that Mr. Jenkins was in good health, and that he was a citizen of that nation.
"We don't know if he was abducted or not," Ms. Alfond said. "Until someone can question Mr. Jenkins at a neutral location, with his family protected, we don't think we'll ever have the answer on what happened.
"Based on the evidence, one must consider the possibility that he was abducted This is a man who spent 10 years in the military," she said. "He came home for Christmas, and then went back to South Korea. Why would he go to North Korea? He could have gotten on a plane and gone anywhere."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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