U.S., Japan accused of plot in desertion case

Nephew of ex-sergeant says Jenkins is innocent

July 25, 2004|By Bruce Wallace | Bruce Wallace,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO - The nephew of alleged U.S. Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins angrily accused the U.S. and Japanese governments yesterday of keeping his uncle in isolation in a Tokyo hospital while they try to orchestrate a plea bargain that would "wash their hands" of an awkward diplomatic problem.

James Hyman, who is campaigning to exonerate his uncle on charges that he defected to North Korea nearly four decades ago, told reporters that the Japanese government had blocked his attempts to visit Jenkins in the past week. Hyman said that his uncle is probably unaware that "the U.S. government does not have proof" of the accusations against him, suggesting that he was kept away from Jenkins because "the Japanese government and the U.S. government believe I may say something wrong."

The Pentagon insists that it still wants to prosecute the 64-year-old former sergeant on charges that he defected from his unit while patrolling the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in 1965, although it is prepared to delay a court-martial until his health improves. But the Japanese government has publicly called for Washington to show leniency so Jenkins can remain with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two daughters in Japan.

Jenkins left North Korea on July 9 for medical treatment after spending almost 40 years in the secretive Communist state. He arrived in Japan a week ago, appearing far frailer than when he left North Korea, and was admitted to a hospital. His hospitalization provides Tokyo and Washington with a slim window to resolve those clashing goals.

Quoting government sources, Japanese media reported yesterday that Washington and Tokyo are trying to cut a deal by which Jenkins would plead guilty to desertion in return for permission to live in Japan. But Jenkins could balk at such a compromise if he knew how weak the U.S. Army's evidence against him is, Hyman said.

Jenkins' family has long maintained that the soldier did not defect but rather was captured by North Korean soldiers and forced to participate in anti-American propaganda films to save his life. At the time of his disappearance, the Army said it had found four notes in which Jenkins confessed his intention to cross over to the enemy. But those notes have vanished from U.S. Army records - if they ever existed, Jenkins' family says, adding that they would have been forgeries in any event because they were signed "Charles" instead of "Robert," as Jenkins was known to family and friends.

On the eve of Jenkins' arrival in Japan, Hyman traveled to Tokyo from his North Carolina home with the help of a Japanese television network.

Hyman says Japanese government officials initially told him a hospital visit was impossible because Jenkins was in poor health and needed medical tests. But on Friday, Jenkins' doctors told a Tokyo news conference that their patient's physical condition was not serious, saying he is suffering only from stress and fatigue.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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