saga of Charles Robert Jenkins
By J Sean Curtin
issue of an American soldier defecting or deserting to
North Korea some 40 years ago has become nettlesome in
otherwise sunny US-Japan relations: The Charles Robert
Jenkins saga. Was he, is he, a deserter, a defector, or
a captive of Pyongyang?
While Washington was
remembering its war dead and veterans on Memorial Day
(this past Monday), Tokyo was frantically drawing up
plans for dealing with a former US soldier the
administration of President George W Bush would rather
forget. In a throwback to the Cold War days, the future
of the enigmatic Charles Robert Jenkins, who allegedly
defected - others say he deserted - to North Korea in
1965, now lies at heart of a convoluted dispute
involving Japan, the United States and North Korea.
The issue is causing tension in US-Japan
relations and dominating the bilateral agenda, much to
Washington's irritation. On another level, the Japanese
public is fascinated by the extraordinary life story of
Jenkins, now 64, which seems more suited to the
fictional pages of a spy novel than to the realm of
Jenkins first came to Japan's attention
in September 2002 as a result of Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi's first and groundbreaking visit to
Pyongyang. An astonished Japan learned that the obscure
American was the husband of Hitomi Soga, a Japanese
woman whom North Korean leader Kim Jong-il confessed his
country had abducted in 1978. After 24 years of
captivity, she was allowed to return to Japan with four
other Japanese abductees in October 2002. Soga was
forced to leave Jenkins and their two daughters behind
in the reclusive communist state.
On May 22 this
year, Koizumi made a second controversial visit to
Pyongyang, negotiating the release of five of the seven
abductee-children who had become virtual
hostage-bargaining chips in bilateral talks. The five
were finally allowed to go to Japan for a reunion with
their parents. However, despite Koizumi's best efforts,
Jenkins and his two daughters refused to join this
group. If the elderly American sets foot on Japanese
soil, or any other nation that has a status of forces
agreement or an extradition treaty with the US, he still
faces extradition and being sent to the United States
for court martial. The statute of limitations for
desertion is 40 years.
The Bush administration
repeatedly has made clear that it intends to
court-martial the Cold War defector, while Tokyo wants
him pardoned or at the very least given "special
consideration". For Koizumi, it's a political imperative
to resolve the issue before the Diet (parliament) Upper
House elections on July 11. Washington, however, has
made it clear that it will not give an inch. Forgiving a
deserter/defector, or even a captive who stayed on, is
not going to build morale among US troops in Iraq.
The current stalemate is putting Koizumi in a
tight corner while the stranger-than-fiction Jenkins
yarn has almost become a media fixture in Japan.
Jenkins' strange tale
The saga of
Charles Robert Jenkins began on an icy winter night
almost four decades ago along the southern boundary of
the bleak Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two
Koreas. According to US military records released in
1996, Jenkins disappeared at 2:30am on January 5, 1965,
while leading a four-man patrol in a wooded area about
10 kilometers south of Panmunjom.
heard a noise, the young Sergeant Jenkins signaled his
three-man squad to halt while he went ahead to
investigate the suspicious sound. His comrades waited,
but their leader never returned. He had vanished into
the shadowy realm of North Korea. Little is really known
of what happened to him after that cold midwinter night.
At the time he went missing, Jenkins, then 24,
was serving with the 8th Cavalry. He was a well-regarded
army veteran, having enlisted in 1955 at the age of 15.
Despite his long service record, the US Army did not
believe he had been captured, but instead listed him as
a defector to communist North Korea.
conclusion was based on four letters it says Jenkins
left behind in his barracks. According to the US
military, they strongly indicated that he was
contemplating defection. In one letter, reportedly
discovered in his footlocker and addressed to his
mother, he wrote a farewell message. According to the US
military, it read: "Forgive me, for I know what I must
do. Tell my family I love them. Love, Charles."
His family in North Carolina, who have never
been allowed to see the letters, claim they must be
fake, pointing out that Jenkins never used "Charles" but
always either signed letters "Robert" or used his
nickname "Super". They have always maintained he is a
captive and not a deserter, a claim the US military
Three weeks after vanishing, North
Korean state radio announced that Jenkins had defected
to gain a "better life" in the communist state. Jenkins
and the three other US deserters later appeared on the
cover of Fortune's Favorites, a North Korean propaganda
pamphlet published around 1965. It is believed Jenkins
also made several radio broadcasts in support of
Pyongyang during the late 1960s.
surfaced in the 1980s in a widely viewed North Korean
propaganda movie titled Nameless Heroes, Chapter
20. In the fiercely anti-US film, Jenkins plays a
sinister US intelligence official, who looks like a
cross between Count Dracula and a creepy Samurai warrior
in a business suit.
During the 1990s, there were
rumors that Jenkins and other American deserters were
still alive in North Korea. In 1996, a Pentagon internal
assessment report officially classified Jenkins as a
deserter, although his whereabouts and what he was doing
Jenkins re-emerges from the
In September 2002, it was suddenly announced
that Jenkins was living in Pyongyang and married to
Hitomi Soga, A Japanese national abducted to North Korea
in 1978. For the first time in almost four decades,
Jenkins' North Carolina relatives had some concrete news
about his situation. The surprising development was also
a great shock to Soga's family, who had no idea she had
been abducted. In August 1978, the then-19-year-old
trainee nurse and her mother, Miyoshi, suddenly
disappeared. The mother is still missing, but incredibly
North Korea claims it did not abduct her.
revealed that Hitomi Soga met Jenkins when she made a
request to learn English. It appears Jenkins was working
as an English teacher, possibly coaching spies. A
romance soon blossomed between the two, who were both
cut off from their homelands. The couple tied the knot
on August 8, 1980. Following the Korean custom, Soga
retained her maiden name after marriage. Their union
produced two daughters, Mika, now 20, and Belinda, 18,
both of whom are students at Pyongyang University of
Since returning to Japan in
October 2002, Soga has been tight-lipped about her
husband, only giving the vaguest of outlines about her
life with a man nearly 20 years her senior. She once
commented, "My husband is kind, though we sometimes
argue." She also said Jenkins once told her he would be
killed if he left North Korea. It is not known how well
the two communicated or in which language they
Since Soga's homecoming, many
articles about Jenkins have appeared in the Japanese
media, their frequency sharply increasing after
Koizumi's recent visit. The most commonly circulated
picture of him shows a smartly dressed elderly man
standing beside his two bright-eyed daughters. All three
are wearing a Kim Jong-il lapel pin, a sign of
allegiance to the regime.
Shortly after Soga's
repatriation, Japanese diplomat Akitaka Saiki met
Jenkins and his daughters by chance at Pyongyang
International Airport. Jenkins mentioned his fear of a
court martial in the US, reportedly telling Saiki, "It
might be difficult for me to visit Japan, until my
In November 2002, Jenkins
caused a storm of protest in Japan when he gave an
interview to the Japanese weekly publication Shukan
Kinyobi. He was quoted as praising Kim Jong-il.
In one of the most interesting parts of the
interview, Jenkins said he had no idea about his wife's
past. Jenkins said Soga did not tell him she had been
abducted to North Korea until just two weeks before her
departure for Japan. He also said that when he and the
daughters saw Soga off at the airport on October 15,
2002, he was under the impression she would return
within 10 days. Tokyo initially agreed that Soga and the
other abductees would be sent back to Pyongyang after a
10-day period, but later reneged on the arrangement. It
appeared the former hostages were not eager to return.
Jenkins meets Koizumi
A sign of just
how important the Jenkins case has now become is
illustrated by the fact that Koizumi met with the
alleged defector for an hour during his brief one-day
trip to Pyongyang on May 22. He did his utmost to
persuade the American, whose two daughters were also
present, to go to Japan.
The prime minister
reportedly passed the former soldier a hand-written memo
stating that Jenkins "shall not be handed over to the US
without consent from the Japanese government". However,
Jenkins was not satisfied with the assurances of the
Japanese leader, instead wanting something official from
the US government confirming he would not be arrested.
Japanese sources quoted Jenkins as saying, "If so, I may
think about going to Japan." Despite the rebuff from the
erstwhile language teacher, the premier politely
replied, "We will make every effort, including trying to
convince the United States."
daughters reportedly told Koizumi that before thinking
about going to Japan, "We want our mother to first come
home" to Pyongyang. These comments are similar to ones
the elder daughter, Mika, made to Shukan Kinyobi in
November 2002. However, Soga has publicly stated that
she will "never" return to North Korea.
also informed Koizumi that he knew from reading Japanese
media reports that Howard Baker, the US ambassador to
Japan, had stated Jenkins would be court-martialed if he
entered Japan. Just prior to Koizumi's departure, Baker
told the Japanese press, "The fact that it's been a long
time ... does not change the fact that he is still
classified as a deserter." The ambassador added, "If he
is returned to the custody of the United States, he will
be dealt with according to the provisions of our
military justice." US Secretary of State Colin Powell
later reinforced this message, saying, "With respect to
Sergeant Jenkins, he is a deserter from the United
States Army and remains so."
military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan make it
impossible for President Bush to be lenient with
Jenkins. Even though Jenkins deserted in 1965, the
statute of limitations is 40 years. Wartime desertion is
punishable by long confinement or the death sentence.
Senior military figures say that not to convene a court
martial would be seen as betraying the millions of
military personnel who perform their duties in dangerous
circumstances and would erode military moral. However,
some argue that living in North Korea for 38 years is
probably punishment enough for any human being.
To try to break the deadlock, Koizumi proposed a
reunion in a third neutral country. Jenkins and his
daughters were apparently very receptive to this idea.
The suggestion was originally made by Kim Jong-il, who
told Koizumi, "If he still refuses to go, why not have
them meet in Beijing?"
Asked what the US thought
of this idea, a bored-looking Colin Powell said, "We
understand that arrangements are being made for his wife
and children to see him at another location at some
point in the future." Crucially, he added that the
United States would not object to this arrangement. Thus
the focus has now shifted to where the reunion will take
Jenkins to meet wife in neutral
Beijing was initially the favored venue,
as Kim had suggested it. However, Soga told Japanese
officials she was unhappy with that location and was
"scared" to go to "a place which is closely linked to
North Korea". Soga added, "I want the government, if
possible, to think about a location other than Beijing."
Soga also said she hopes to meet at a place where
English is a common language and her family can feel
relaxed. Koizumi commented, "I have already ordered a
place to be found that takes Ms Soga's desires into
consideration. It doesn't have to be Beijing."
The Japanese government is compiling a list of
suitable countries with no US extradition treaties,
status of forces agreements or criminal investigation
cooperation treaties. The media are awash with possible
locations, including Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia,
Cambodia, Thailand, Mongolia, Switzerland and a Chinese
city other than Beijing. Officials have said it may take
a few weeks to arrange the reunion.
moment, however, Indonesia is emerging as the
front-runner because it has diplomatic ties with
Pyongyang and no extradition treaties with the United
States. Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz has also
welcomed the idea of hosting the reunion.
Japanese Foreign Ministry official, who did not wish to
be named, told Asia Times Online that Koizumi is even
considering temporarily relocating the entire family to
a third country, until the statute of limitations runs
out on Jenkins in early 2005. This would offer an
immediate solution to the problem and given Jenkins and
his family a clear schedule for relocating to Japan some
time next year.
Some commentators believe that
because Pyongyang views Jenkins and his daughters as
bargaining chips, Japan will have to negotiate hard to
get it to accept a non-Beijing rendezvous. While
arrangements for an overseas reunion are being hammered
out, the government is also making plans for permanently
relocating Jenkins and the two daughters in Japan.
Washington also wants to resolve Jenkins'
Successfully reuniting Soga and her family
is a top priority of the Koizumi administration, with a
quick resolution vital before the Upper House elections
next month. Under present circumstances, it seems highly
unlikely that Bush will grant Jenkins a pardon, so a
temporary relocation to a third country until 2005 is
probably the best option for Jenkins. This, of course,
is provided Tokyo can arrange it with unpredictable
Washington will no doubt also be
secretly relieved if Koizumi succeeds. Once the premier
has resolved the issue, he can focus his full attention
on the serious problem of North Korea's nuclear program.
This is something the Bush administration has been
urging him to do, while finding the entire Jenkins
affair highly annoying.
As for Jenkins, if he
does make it to Japan, we may finally learn what
happened to him on that cold winter night way back in
1965. Did he really defect as the evidence appears to
indicate, or was he captured and brainwashed as his
family and supporters claim? Whatever his true story, it
will probably be more unbelievable than fiction.
J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based
Japanese Institute of Global Communications.
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