HONOLULU — Amid the swirl of diplomatic maneuvering among the United States, Japan, South Korea and North Korea stands the strange case of Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins, who is accused of having deserted from the U.S. Army in South Korea in 1965 to defect to North Korea.
In perhaps the mother of all coincidences, Jenkins is married to Hitomi Soga, a Japanese who was abducted by North Korean agents from northwestern Japan in 1978 and taken to Pyongyang. She met Jenkins there in a school where he taught English; they married in 1980 and have two daughters, ages 19 and 17.
Soga was one of five Japanese allowed a month ago to visit Japan, where the issue of the North Korean abductions has erupted into a raging controversy. The Japanese government has kept Soga and the others in Japan because their families fear for their safety if they return to North Korea.
In addition, the five Japanese have become bargaining chips. Japan and North Korea are in tense negotiations over establishing diplomatic relations, financial reparations for Japan’s 35-year rule of Korea and North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles that could be employed against Japan.
Soga, who was kidnapped when she was 19 and is now 43, wants her husband and their daughters to join her in Japan. Jenkins, however, is still carried on the rolls of the U.S. Army as a deserter and would be subject to arrest if he steps into Japan, South Korea or any other nation that has a Status of Forces Agreement or an extradition treaty with the U.S.
Three resolutions to this tangle have been suggested:
* Humanitarian. Soga was in Tokyo this week to press the Japanese government to persuade the U.S. to show leniency toward Jenkins, now 62, permitting him to come to Japan without fear of arrest and resume his family life there.
* Diplomatic. The Japanese government, responding to public sentiment, has asked the U.S. not to prosecute Jenkins. The North Koreans said this week that Jenkins had been hospitalized, but this has not been verified and may be a ploy intended to get Soga to return. In South Korea, rising anti-Americanism may generate protests no matter what the U.S. does.
* Court-martial. Desertion is among the most serious of military crimes. It can be classed as routine, which would draw 2-3 years of confinement, or avoidance of hazardous duty, which would call for a 5-year sentence. Wartime desertion can be punished by long confinement or death.
Of the three scenarios, the most likely is court-martial, perhaps softened with a plea bargain, to preserve what the military services call good order and discipline. More important, not to convene a court-martial would be to break faith with the millions of other American men and women who have stood by their posts in the face of danger and discomfort.
U.S. officials familiar with the case say Jenkins would almost certainly be convicted, since he left behind in his barracks four notes saying he was defecting and wrote to his family in the U.S. that he was sorry for the pain he would cause them. The officials brushed aside claims that North Koreans kidnapped Jenkins, saying there was no such evidence.
Legal specialists say Jenkins would probably be tried for avoiding hazardous duty rather than for wartime desertion, even though the U.S. is technically still at war with North Korea, no peace treaty having been signed after the Korean War of 1950-53.
In a court-martial, Jenkins could choose to be tried by a judge alone or a jury of five to 10 military people, one third of whom could be enlisted like himself. In either case, the judge would have the discretion, within the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to determine the sentence. He would not have the authority to impose a sentence and then suspend it.
The convening authority, probably a three or four star commanding general, would have the power to accept a plea bargain from Jenkins. If Jenkins agreed, for instance, to provide information about other American deserters in North Korea or about North Korea itself, the convening authority could order a dishonorable discharge and suspend whatever sentence the judge had imposed.
Some would argue that living in North Korea for 37 years should be considered punishment enough and nothing would be gained by sentencing Jenkins to more time in prison.
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