Duty calls for accused army deserter Jenkins

by Eric Talmadge

The Associated Press

Sgt. Charles Jenkins, it’s time to report for duty.

Responding to Jenkins’ pledge to turn himself in four decades after leaving his U.S. Army unit and vanishing into North Korea, U.S. military officials say they’re ready to put the frail 64-year-old back in uniform, give him a haircut, set him up in on-base housing — and then court-martial him for desertion.

“We’re always ready to take in deserters and receive them back,” said Maj. John Amberg, spokesman for the U.S. Army Japan headquarters at Camp Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Jenkins broke months of silence this week, issuing a statement saying he would turn himself over to army officials at Camp Zama as soon as he’s deemed fit enough.

He has been hospitalized in Tokyo since he was flown here in July on a plane chartered by Japan. Media here have speculated that Jenkins could be out of the hospital within days.

Once he turns himself in, Jenkins would be treated like any other E-5, or sergeant.

Until discharged, he would be assigned to a new unit, receive pay and other benefits and be able to live on base with his family. He would only be put in custody if considered a flight risk, dangerous or likely to tamper with witnesses.

Yet the Jenkins case is anything but ordinary.

His wife, Hitomi Soga, is one of more than a dozen Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s and forced to train the North’s spies. Perceived as a tragic heroine in Japan, she was repatriated after a landmark 2002 summit between North Korea leader Kim Jong Il and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Jenkins, fearing prosecution, stayed behind with their two daughters.

Facing an outpouring of sympathy for Soga, Koizumi personally led the effort to reunite the family in Japan.

In another summit in May, Koizumi won approval for a meeting between Jenkins and Soga in Jakarta. Following the brief reunion, the family was quickly whisked to Tokyo, ostensibly because of Jenkins’ poor health. He is believed to have a heart condition, though details are vague.

Public sentiment here strongly favors leniency for Jenkins so the family can live together. Koizumi vowed Wednesday to “continue to do all we can to help.”

Accused of leaving his army patrol along the Demilitarized Zone in January 1965, Jenkins faces charges of desertion, aiding the enemy and encouraging other soldiers to desert or to be disloyal.

The maximum penalty for peacetime desertion is life in prison. But punishment can also be as light as a dishonorable discharge.

Jenkins has been meeting frequently with U.S. Army lawyer Capt. James Culp in recent weeks and is expected to seek some sort of pretrial agreement that would guarantee light punishment in return for information on the North’s activities.

Leniency, however, might not sit well with the military community and veterans’ groups — particularly when U.S. soldiers are braving combat in Iraq.

The charges against Jenkins also don’t necessarily paint a sympathetic picture.

Jenkins, originally of Rich Square, N.C., allegedly participated in broadcasts across the DNZ, urging other U.S. soldiers to desert. He acted in anti-U.S. propaganda films and is believed to have taught for many years at a training center for Pyongyang intelligence agents.

Suspicions have also been raised that he might have been involved in interrogating U.S. sailors taken by the North when it captured the navy spy ship USS Pueblo in 1968. One sailor was killed and 82 were taken prisoner. Captive crew members were beaten with pieces of lumber, burned on radiators and had their teeth kicked out by North Korean soldiers.

U.S. Army spokesman Amberg stressed that — until Jenkins actually shows up at the base gates — the situation remains fluid.

Whether Jenkins’ court-martial will even be conducted in Japan is a decision to be made by army officials in Fort Knox, Ky. If it’s held at Camp Zama, a judge will have to be flown in, since no one stationed at the base is qualified to preside.