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64-Year Old American Pleads Guilty to Deserting
U.S. Soldier Spent Past 38 Years in North Korea
TOKYO, Nov. 3 -- A 64-year old American soldier pleaded guilty on Wednesday to deserting to North Korea in 1965, receiving a relatively light sentence of up to 30 days confinement and a dishonorable discharge from a U.S. military judge in Japan.
The sentence for Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins was part of a plea bargain he struck with U.S. officials in which Jenkins is likely to provide information on his 38 years spent in Communist North Korea. He was scheduled to begin his confinement inside a U.S. naval base south of Tokyo later on Wednesday, though Col. Denise Vowell, the judge handing his court martial, recommended the 30-day confinement period be suspended. A higher ranking U.S. military official was expect to rule on her recommendation in the coming days.
The ruling effectively settled a rare dispute between the United States and its close ally, Japan, which had asked U.S. officials for leniency in his case after winning Jenkins' release from North Korea in July.
Japan intervened on Jenkins' behalf because he is the husband of Hitomi Soga, a Japanese citizen abducted by North Korean spies in 1978 and repatriated in late 2002 following diplomatic overtures by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Jenkins and Soga have two daughters who the North Koreans also surrendered along with Jenkins last summer.
The case of the North Carolina native garnered massive media attention in Japan, where the unlikely love story of the U.S. deserter and his Japanese wife, almost 20 years his junior, gripped the nation. Only the U.S. charges against him clouded the family's future in Japan. After serving his time, Jenkins is likely to resettle with his family here with the blessing of the Japanese government.
"I only hope that the small happiness we have as a family will grow bigger and bigger," Soga told the court.
Jenkins on Wednesday admitted that he had willingly abandoned his post along the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea in 1965. He told the court that he had planned the desertion for 10 days, and had tied a white t-shirt to his rifle to signal his surrender to the North Koreans.
He said he feared his hazardous duty on the tense Korean peninsula, and wanted avoid being redeployed to Vietnam. He said he made his decision after spending many days depressed.
"I walked away from my squad . . . for the purpose of going to North Korea," Jenkins told the court.
In uniform and close to tears, Jenkins, who was raised in poverty and never made it to high school, added that "it was Christmas time, it was also cold and dark. I started to drink alcohol. I never had drunk so much alcohol."
Jenkins said he had planned to travel to the Soviet Union, and turn himself in at the U.S. Embassy there. But the North Koreans would not allow him to leave. "I knew 100 percent what I was doing, but I didn't know the consequences behind it," he said. "I didn't know that North Korea was going to keep me."
Jenkins pleaded guilty to aiding the enemy by teaching North Koreans English during the 1980s. But he denied that his participation in at least one anti-U.S. North Korean propaganda movie -- where he starred as sinister CIA agent -- amounted to additional charges of making disloyal statements against the United States.
He said grew to despise his new homeland, and that only meeting Soga -- who had been kidnapped by North Koreans to teach Japanese to North Korea's spies -- kept him going emotionally. "She was 20 years younger than me and no one thought that she could love me," he said tearfully.
"Our mutual hate for North Korea brought us together and kept us together for 24 years," he said. "Marriage to my wife brought me happiness."
He said his desire to keep Soga, and later, their two daughters, safe, made him cooperate. Besides participating in propaganda films, Jenkins is also believed to have taught at a North Korean spy school.
"You don't say no to North Korea," he said. "You say one thing bad about Kim Il Sung and you dig your own hole, because you're gone," Jenkins said.
After coming to Japan via Jakarta in July, Jenkins turned himself over to U.S. authorities at Camp Zama, Japan. Jenkins faced a maximum penalty of life in prison. Prosecutors had sought nine months of detention against him. Hiroyuki Hosoda, Koizumi's top spokesman, thanked the United States on Wednesday for its "consideration" in the Jenkins case.
"If spending money you don't have is the height of stupidity, borrowing money to give it away is the height of insanity." -- anon