Mysterious Cold War casualty finally emerges from behind Bamboo Curtain

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The Independent Online

Charles Jenkins is surely one of the cold war's oddest legacies; a man with a resumé so bizarre you couldn't make it up. From teenage weekend warrior in North Carolina to alleged North Korean propagandist in just under a decade, the ex-GI sergeant then married and built a family with a woman who had been kidnapped by Pyongyang's spies. Yesterday he arrived in Indonesia with his two daughters for a tearful reunion with his Japanese wife.

Charles Jenkins is surely one of the cold war's oddest legacies; a man with a resumé so bizarre you couldn't make it up. From teenage weekend warrior in North Carolina to alleged North Korean propagandist in just under a decade, the ex-GI sergeant then married and built a family with a woman who had been kidnapped by Pyongyang's spies. Yesterday he arrived in Indonesia with his two daughters for a tearful reunion with his Japanese wife.

Hitomi Soga had been allowed to leave North Korea two years ago. But her family stayed behind because Mr Jenkins, now 64, feared he would be prosecuted as a deserter by the Americans. He feels safe in Indonesia because it has no extradition treaty with the US.

The story begins on 5 January 1965 when the 24-year-old Mr Jenkins, then stationed near the Demilitarised Zone in South Korea, disappeared after telling his platoon he was going to investigate a noise. Weeks later, Mr Jenkins' high-pitched southern accent could be heard in propaganda broadcasts singing the praises of the North Korean founder Kim Il-Sung from his new home in Pyongyang.

It was a stunning transformation for a man who had lied about his age to get into the National Guard and had the words "US Army" tattooed on his arm. His superiors claimed Mr Jenkins had defected, and produced letters home to prove it. One said: "Dear Mother, I am sorry for the trouble I will cause you. I know what I will have to do. I am going to North Korea. Tell the family I love them very much. Love Charles." While thousands of Japanese and other nationals had voluntarily gone in the 1950s and 1960s to what was then one of the most technologically sophisticated societies in Asia, Mr Jenkins appeared to be one of a tiny number of Americans to have betrayed Uncle Sam for Uncle Kim. To rub salt into the wound, the US military alleges, Mr Jenkins publicly praised the North as a "Shangri-La" and appeared in at least one anti-American propaganda movie.

Case closed, says the military. But Mr Jenkins' family has protested for years that the whole defection story is a smear. "My uncle was kidnapped by North Korea," says James Hyman, a nephew in North Carolina, who believes the crucial letters home were forged. "We've never seen those letters and the army says they're lost. When he says with his own lips that he defected, I'll believe him." The only one who knew for sure was Mr Jenkins, and he was out of reach.

The army stuck Mr Jenkins' file in a dusty folder marked "Deserter" and that's where it stayed until October 2002, when North Korea allowed his wife to return to Japan, 23 years after its agents kidnapped her from a coastal village on the Japan Sea. Initially intended as a brief homecoming, Ms Soga and four other abductees found themselves at the centre of a political storm and were prevented from returning to Pyongyang.

Japan has been riveted by the drama of this shy woman and the much older Mr Jenkins, stranded on either side of the rusting Bamboo Curtain, whose plight stands in the way of any détente between Tokyo and Pyongyang. Interviewed by Japanese reporters and wearing an ever-present Kim Il-Sung lapel badge, Mr Jenkins said he and Ms Soga, whom he met as an English teacher, were "drawn together by mutual loneliness". He claimed they had lived a quiet, happy life in Pyongyang with their two daughters Belinda and Mika and that he knew nothing of his wife's background. "I miss her but I can't go to Japan because the US army will arrest me," he said.

So keen was the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to persuade Mr Jenkins to come in from the cold, that during his May summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il he scrawled a hand-written pledge to the ex-GI, beginning with the words "I guarantee", that he would not be extradited back to the US. It was a bold statement: Washington has given no indication that it is prepared to be lenient to a man it considers a traitor, despite the obvious political fallout.

The drama dragged on for 21 months before a temporary reunion was finally arranged this week in Indonesia. Ms Soga, looking luminously happy after so long separated from her beloved family, flew into Jakarta on Thursday accompanied by an enormous posse of Japanese reporters and is currently re-bonding with her family in a Jakarta hotel.

With national elections looming this weekend, the timing couldn't be better for Mr Koizumi, who could use a happy ending to give him a bounce in the polls. Whether he will get it or not depends on whether Mr Jenkins decides to face the music, or scupper back to Shangri-La.

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