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Ex-U.S. Soldier Reunited With Japanese Wife

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Times Staff Writers

Charles Robert Jenkins, a former American soldier and alleged deserter who has lived for nearly 40 years in the isolation of North Korea, arrived here Friday with his two daughters and held a tearful reunion with his Japanese wife.

Entering the Intercontinental Hotel, the family was greeted by two dozen television cameras and hundreds of journalists. Jenkins, 64, told the crowd that he was “happy” but waved off all questions about his decades in the North.

The trip is believed to be the first outside North Korea by the North Carolina native since 1965, when he left his U.S. Army unit in South Korea and walked across the demilitarized zone at the height of the Cold War.

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The story of Jenkins’ wife, Hitomi Soga, is equally strange. Now 45, she was kidnapped as a schoolgirl in 1978 by North Korean agents who took her to Pyongyang, the capital, to teach Japanese to spies.

She was allowed to return to Japan nearly two years ago; Jenkins remained in North Korea with their daughters, apparently fearing he would be extradited to the U.S. and charged with desertion.

Friday’s reunion was arranged by the Japanese government, which chose Indonesia for it because that country does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi tried to bring Jenkins out of North Korea during a trip there in May, but he refused to go.

Soga, who arrived in Jakarta on Thursday, greeted her husband at the airport with a big kiss as their daughters, 21-year-old Mika and 18-year-old Belinda looked on tearfully.

The family’s first encounters with the world outside North Korea involved getting stuck in one of Jakarta’s legendary traffic jams. Even with a police escort, it took nearly two hours to travel the 15 miles from the airport to the hotel.

At the hotel, the daughters appeared overwhelmed and embarrassed by the attention. They entered the lobby with their heads down and nervously accepted bouquets of flowers from schoolchildren at a brief welcoming ceremony.

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The family’s case has generated huge interest in Japan. A Japanese Embassy official said 200 Japanese reporters were in Jakarta to cover Soga’s reunion with the husband and daughters she hadn’t seen for 21 months. The touchdown of the plane Friday was carried live on three national networks in Japan.

Many Japanese regard Jenkins as a difficult character whose anxieties about extradition unnecessarily extended the length of his family’s separation. But Soga is a sympathetic figure in her homeland. She has become a celebrity, and her poems pouring out her heartache have been widely published.

Soga left Pyongyang in October 2002 with four other Japanese abductees in the midst of a diplomatic push by North Korea and Japan to improve long-hostile relations.

“What I am most worried about is what we should do after our reunion,” Soga told reporters in Japan. “At the end of this whole process, what I really want is for the four of us to be living together as a family here in Japan.”

Because of the public interest in what has been billed in Japan as the “love story of the year,” the Koizumi government made a rare request that the United States grant Jenkins amnesty so that the family could live together.

The unusual case presents a dilemma for the U.S. government, which must choose between turning down a high-level request from a key ally or setting a precedent by pardoning a soldier who allegedly defected from his post to an enemy land.

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In Jakarta last week for a meeting of foreign ministers, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell indicated that the U.S. would not go after the former soldier in Indonesia but said, “Sgt. Jenkins is, of course, a deserter from the U.S. Army and those charges remain outstanding.”

In North Carolina, Jenkins’ relatives said that the family was eagerly following news of the reunion but that no one planned to fly to Indonesia.

“It’s been 40 years for us, so we can wait a little bit longer. This reunion is for the immediate family to resolve things and hopefully figure out how they can live together in Japan,” said Shir-Lee Hyman, Jenkins’ niece by marriage.

Jenkins was 24 when he disappeared on Jan. 5, 1965. He was leading a patrol in the demilitarized zone and told the other men he wanted to investigate a noise. He never returned.

Shortly afterward, his voice was heard over a loudspeaker saying he had found a socialist paradise in North Korea.

Over the years, he made appearances in North Korea’s anti-American propaganda, once posing for photos in a leaflet and another time playing a villainous U.S. officer in a television series. Jenkins, who taught English in the country, is believed to have met Soga in 1980 when she was one of his students.

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During all those years, Jenkins had no contact with his family in the U.S.

“It was a terrible thing for the family. Having a kid defect to the communists was worse than having one killed in action,” Michael Cooke, a family friend, said in an interview this year. Cooke said that he regularly visited Jenkins’ mother, Pattie Casper, in a nursing home and that she still had photos of Jenkins in his uniform on her bedside table.

Some family members have suggested that Jenkins might have been kidnapped, but no evidence of foul play has emerged.

Jenkins, a high school dropout, came from a poor family and lost his father as a child. He washed cars for spare change before joining the military.

In Pyongyang, he apparently lived as a member of the elite, faring better than ordinary North Koreans in one of the world’s poorest countries. His daughters were said to be attending a prestigious institute of foreign language studies.

“I am a North Korean citizen,” Jenkins said in a rare interview with a Japanese magazine in late 2002. “Thanks to Gen. Kim Jong Il [North Korea’s leader], our daughters are studying for free at school. I was given a car by the country. We are living without difficulties.”

Three other GIs who defected during the Cold War are believed to also still be living in North Korea.

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Paddock reported from Jakarta and Demick from Seoul. Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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