Ailing US deserter risks arrest with trip to Japanese hospital

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After nearly 40 years in North Korea, Charles Jenkins arrived yesterday in Japan, an enemy of Pyongyang during the Cold War, where he risks arrest and imprisonment for deserting the US army.

After nearly 40 years in North Korea, Charles Jenkins arrived yesterday in Japan, an enemy of Pyongyang during the Cold War, where he risks arrest and imprisonment for deserting the US army.

Mr Jenkins, a former sergeant, touched down at Haneda airport in Tokyo with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, and daughters Mika and Belinda. In Jakarta, he had said he was prepared to "sacrifice" himself for his family. "I know the risk I will face if I go to Japan, but I am willing to take the risk, because the most important thing for me is that my daughters can be reunited with their mother."

He had moved to Indonesia to avoid extradition to the US, which also wants to question him about propaganda films in which he played evil Americans. The two countries have no agreement on extradition

Mr Jenkins, 64, a heavy smoker, has lung and stomach problems that require specialist treatment, and he is now in a central Tokyo hospital.Ms Soga was kidnapped by North Korean agents from Japan in the 1970s, then spent 21 months separated from her family after she was repatriated from Pyongyang in 2002.

The US has maintained its right to prosecute Mr Jenkins for desertionin South Korea in 1965. But on Saturday, Howard Baker, the US ambassador to Japan, struck a conciliatory note saying: "There are no plans for US officials to see Jenkins in the immediate future."

But he also advised Mr Jenkins to turn himself in and admit his crimes. "When we can gain custody of him, he will be charged," Mr Baker said. "With what and when and on what basis, I can't tell you. But it will be treated as the very serious incident that it is."

Mr Baker and the Japanese government risk huge political damage if they push their case against the ailing former NCO in Japan, where there is enormous public sympathy for his wife. The story of Ms Soga's abduction, repatriation and long separation from her family, and her quiet stoicism in the face of this ordeal, has made her possibly the most famous and popular woman in the country.

Most Japanese want to see her and the much older Mr Jenkins live out their remaining years in peace with their daughters. "Ms Soga's dream finally comes true," was how Japan's NHK television described the family's arrival.

A spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry said last night: "America still retains the right to ask Japan to put Sergeant Jenkins into custody, according to the Status of Forces Agreement. But in the light of Mr Jenkins health, they have delayed any action. As long as he is in this medical condition, they have no immediate plans to arrest Mr Jenkins."

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