Alleged defector arrives in Japan

Former U.S. soldier seeks care in wife's native land

July 19, 2004|By Bruce Wallace | Bruce Wallace,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

Japanese authorities immediately whisked the 64-year-old Jenkins to a Tokyo hospital, where he will undergo tests and possible treatment for an undisclosed abdominal illness. The U.S. government 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 Washington. He and his two adult daughters had spent an emotional nine-day reunion there with Jenkins' Japanese-born wife, Hitomi Soga, 45, who was repatriated alone from North Korea in 2002.

Jenkins' presence in Japan sharpens the diplomatic problem facing the Bush administration. On one hand, Washington has made clear it intends to seek his custody. The administration is unwilling to bend on punishing serious military crimes, especially while it has troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet the United States is also sensitive about stirring up anti-American resentment in Japan, the foremost U.S. ally in Asia and a country divided over its military participation in postwar Iraq.

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

Howard H. Baker Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Japan, said Washington is in no hurry to demand custody, although the administration insists Jenkins will eventually be charged.

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

In 1978, Soga was kidnapped at age 18 by North Korean agents and taken to the Communist country to teach Japanese to its spies. She came home in 2002, along with four other abductees, after North Korea used the occasion of a historic summit with Japan's prime minister to confess its policy of abducting Japanese citizens.

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 United States to face charges.

Jenkins' family in North Carolina believes he, like Soga, was kidnapped by North Korea, the Associated Press reported.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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