Japan struggles to finalize Soga family reunion site

Repatriated abductee's reluctance to meet with kin in Beijing gives government a headache

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Nearly two weeks have passed since former U.S. Army Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, who lives in North Korea, rejected a personal request from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to come to Japan and meet his wife, repatriated abductee Hitomi Soga.

The government, which has promised to reunite the family, seems nowhere near finding a place where Jenkins, whom the U.S. lists as a deserter, Soga and their two daughters can meet in peace.

Jenkins says he fears he will be turned over to the United States for court-martial should he set foot on Japanese soil. Under the Japan-U.S. Extradition Treaty, Tokyo would be obliged to hand him over to Washington if it made a formal request.

During his May 22 summit with Koizumi, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il proposed that the family meet in a third location, such as Beijing, if Jenkins refused to come to Japan.

But although Jenkins and Soga have agreed to a third-country reunion, the government is finding the task difficult.

The most important factor in choosing a country is that it must not have signed an extradition treaty, status-of-forces agreement or criminal investigation cooperation treaty with the U.S.

According to the Foreign Ministry, 109 nations have extradition accords with the U.S.

The government initially tried to arrange a meeting in Beijing, as Kim suggested during the summit.

“Kim proposed Beijing and Jenkins said he was all right with that,” said a senior government official who asked not to be named. “If Soga gave the green light, we would have arranged it so.”

But she didn’t, issuing a statement Monday that she would like the reunion site to be somewhere other than the Chinese capital, apparently fearful that the close ties between China and North Korea might adversely affect her efforts to persuade her family to come to Japan.

So far, Indonesia, which has diplomatic ties with the North and no extradition treaty with the U.S., appears to be the best site.

Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz has reportedly said that his government would be ready to assist in arranging a reunion if they received a request from Japan.

The catch is that the Southeast Asian nation does not fulfill Soga’s earlier request that the reunion take place in a country where English is commonly spoken.

The government is currently drawing up a list of cities that have direct air links with Pyongyang.

“If the Jenkins take a transit flight, they may have to stay at that airport for a night or two,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “In that case, we would also need to ensure that that country does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S.”

Vladivostok in the Russian Far East fits the bill as a stopover point, but some officials have voiced concern that Soga, who is getting used to Japanese living standards, may not feel comfortable staying there for what may be months, as the family discusses its course for the future.

Soga has also said she “never wants to be parted” from her family once they are reunited — something that government officials say has compelled them to search for a place where the family might possibly live together indefinitely.

Some government officials have recently begun to suggest Hong Kong as a prospective site. The former British colony was returned to mainland China in 1997.

“The Jenkins’ can fly to Macau on a direct flight and take a ship to Hong Kong,” one official said, adding that he believes it is the best location so far.

Other Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam, where North Korea has an embassy, and Cambodia have also surfaced as possible sites.

But even when the government decides on a location, it would still have to propose it to the North Korean government, which would then ask Jenkins for his approval. After that, Tokyo would have to gain the cooperation of the chosen state and make arrangements.

“It may take longer than we initially thought,” a top Foreign Ministry official admitted.

Yabunaka to visit U.S.

Senior Foreign Ministry official Mitoji Yabunaka will begin a three-day visit the United States on Thursday to hold talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and issues surrounding repatriated abductee Hitomi Soga, according to the Foreign Ministry.