CAMP ZAMA, Kanagawa Pref. — Sgt. Charles Jenkins was given a 30-day jail sentence and a dishonorable discharge Wednesday after pleading guilty before a court-martial at Camp Zama for deserting his U.S. Army unit and fleeing to North Korea in 1965.
The judge recommended the jail term be suspended, and the military is expected to rule on this soon.
Jenkins told the court-martial he deserted to avoid dangerous duty on the Korean Peninsula and in Vietnam.
The plea — part of a bargain to win a lenient sentence — was a major step in unraveling a Cold War mystery that began when Jenkins disappeared while on patrol and defected to North Korea four decades ago.
The prosecution had called the crimes “selfish and despicable” and had requested a brief jail term and a dishonorable discharge for the ailing 64-year-old. He could have faced life in prison.
“Ma’am, I am in fact guilty,” Jenkins told the judge, Col. Denise Vowell, in his sometimes tearful testimony.
He also pleaded guilty to aiding the enemy by teaching English to North Korean military cadets being trained as spies in the 1980s.
Jenkins, however, denied that he advocated the overthrow of the United States in propaganda broadcasts, and pleaded innocent to charges of making disloyal statements. Vowell dropped those accusations against him.
The American turned himself in to the U.S. military on Sept. 11, two months after he left Pyongyang and came to Japan for medical treatment. Tokyo called for leniency in his case so he could live in Japan with his wife, repatriated Pyongyang abductee Hitomi Soga, whom he married in 1980, and their two daughters.
In full uniform for the court-martial, Jenkins wept as he described his depression, fears of death and heavy drinking in the days leading up to his Jan. 5, 1965, disappearance from his unit.
He said he was afraid of being transferred to dangerous daytime patrols in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, or worse — to Vietnam.
“I started to fear something for myself, but I started to fear even more that I might cause other soldiers to be killed. I started drinking alcohol,” he said, breaking down in tears. “I never drank so much before.”
After 10 days of planning, he headed for North Korea with a white T-shirt tied to his rifle as a surrender flag.
Jenkins told the court of his plan to ask the North Koreans to send him to the Soviet Union, where he would turn himself in to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and return to the United States.
Instead, Jenkins said he was harshly mistreated in North Korea and forced to teach English to military cadets from 1981 until 1985, adding that refusing to do so would have brought “hardship to me and my family that would never end.”
Soga, who married Jenkins — nearly 20 years her senior — after she was kidnapped from Japan by North Korean agents in 1978, also pleaded with the court for leniency, saying Jenkins had provided for his family despite grueling conditions in North Korea.
“My husband and I did not like North Korea,” Soga told the court. “Now I only wish we our family’s small happiness becomes bigger and bigger.” The couple’s two daughters — Mika, 21, and Brinda, 19 — were also present.
Vowell had recommended a suspended six-month jail term, but court-martial rules required her to abide by the pretrial agreement setting the sentence at 30 days. She then also recommended that it be suspended.
Jenkins was also demoted to the lowest military rank, E-1, was forced to forfeit all pay and was stripped of his military benefits. He was later taken to the U.S. Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture, where he will be confined unless the sentence is suspended.
The court-martial was the climax to one of the U.S. Army’s longest desertion sagas. Although army deserters from the 1940s are still listed as wanted, no deserter or desertion suspect has surrendered after as long an absence as Jenkins.
Raised in poverty, the Rich Square, N.C., native joined the army as a teenager, received a Good Conduct Award after his first tour of duty in South Korea in 1961 and rose to the rank of sergeant.
But after deserting his unit, he participated in North Korean propaganda broadcasts, played an American villain in at least one anti-U.S. movie, and taught English at a university for military cadets.
He vanished from view until the Pentagon confirmed in the mid-1980s that he and three other suspected American deserters were living in Pyongyang.
Jenkins became the focus of intense negotiations in 2002, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted in a summit with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that Pyongyang had abducted Soga and other Japanese.
Soga and four other Japanese abductees were allowed to return to Japan that year, but Jenkins and their daughters had to stay behind, as did the North Korean-born children of the four other abductees.
Koizumi traveled to the North again last May and successfully brought the children of the four abductees to Japan. But Jenkins, fearing prosecution by the U.S. military, refused to travel with Koizumi.
Later, Jenkins agreed to a family reunion in Indonesia in July and then went to Tokyo, where he was hospitalized for an abdominal disorder.
Legal issues over
Staff report The Japanese government believes all legal issues surrounding Charles Jenkins have been cleared with Wednesday’s court-martial, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said.
Speaking to reporters after the proceedings ended at the U.S. Army’s Camp Zama, Hosoda said the day’s events were a “de facto end” to the legal case.
Jenkins is the husband of Hitomi Soga, a Japanese national who was abducted to North Korea in 1978 and repatriated in 2002.
“The government will continue to provide the necessary support (for Jenkins) so he can live with his family in Japan,” Hosoda said.
Hosoda also expressed gratitude toward the United States for its “understanding and consideration” in the Jenkins affair. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker said in a statement issued Wednesday that he believes “we have done our best to live up to that promise” of giving “due consideration to the humanitarian aspect of this case.”