U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker suggested to senior lawmakers of the ruling coalition Friday that Charles Jenkins, an alleged U.S. Army deserter to North Korea, should seek a plea bargain, officials said.
The suggestion came just hours before Tokyo formally announced that Jenkins, 64, who reunited with his Japanese wife, repatriated Pyongyang abductee Hitomi Soga, in Jakarta last week, will travel to Japan for urgent medical treatment Sunday.
Jenkins, his wife and their two North Korean-born daughters will fly to Japan on a government-chartered plane and he will be immediately hospitalized in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters, describing the move as an “urgent and humanitarian step.”
The announcement came a week after Soga’s emotional reunion in Jakarta with Jenkins and her daughters, Mika and Belinda, for the first time since Pyongyang allowed her and four other surviving Japanese abductees to return to Japan 21 months ago.
Baker made the suggestion to LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe and his New Komeito counterpart, Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, who visited the envoy Friday morning to ask Washington for “humanitarian consideration” on Jenkins’ case.
A plea bargain appears to be the only way for Jenkins, Soga and their daughters to live together in Japan, which Soga has strongly urged. Although the nature of such a plea was not specified, it is rumored that he would seek leniency in return for providing information about the North.
Jenkins had earlier refused to come to Japan, citing fears that he would be handed over to the U.S. for court-martial.
Baker said, as his “personal opinion,” that Jenkins should turn himself in, consult with a lawyer and seek a plea bargain on the charges against him, according to participants of the meeting.
Baker was quoted as saying that Jenkins “will not face capital punishment if he confesses to everything he has done.” The death penalty, the maximum penalty for desertion, has not been handed down in decades.
Although he maintained that the U.S. will seek custody and press charges against him, he said Washington will not immediately urge Japan to hand him over because of his poor health, they said.
“That is the only way out,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official who asked not to be named. “We cannot ask the U.S. to ignore its own laws and procedures” against an alleged deserter.
Jenkins is accused of four charges: instigating desertion, deserting service, helping the enemy and promoting abandonment of loyalty.
At a news conference, Hosoda said Jenkins’ illness may be spreading to other parts of his body. Although Hosoda did not elaborate on the exact nature of the ailment, his comment suggests Jenkins is suffering from cancer.
Jenkins underwent abdominal surgery in North Korea in April, and has not healed from the operation. The wound is now festering, threatening an infection and internal organ damage, he said.
“We initially hoped the family would stay (in Jakarta) for a long period by themselves,” Hosoda said. “But we were taken aback by his condition and decided to bring things forward.”
Hosoda further noted that he had already explained to Baker about Jenkins’ trip to Japan and his need for urgent care. He said he believes the U.S. will not take immediate action against Jenkins while he is hospitalized.
A government source also said it is unlikely Jenkins will be questioned by U.S. government officials until he has recovered sufficiently.