Sergeant jailed for hiding behind Bamboo Curtain

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The Independent Online

The long, strange journey of Charles Robert Jenkins reached a tearful climax yesterday with a 30-day sentence in a military prison and a dishonourable discharge from the US Army he deserted for North Korea almost 40 years ago.

The long, strange journey of Charles Robert Jenkins reached a tearful climax yesterday with a 30-day sentence in a military prison and a dishonourable discharge from the US Army he deserted for North Korea almost 40 years ago.

His voice cracking with emotion, a frail and ailing Jenkins pleaded guilty to leaving his post in South Korea in 1965 as a 24-year-old sergeant, saying he had wanted "to be discharged to my civilian life," and avoid "hazardous" duty in Korea and in the worsening conflict in Vietnam.

Jenkins told the military hearing in Zama Camp, Tokyo, how he disappeared behind the Bamboo Curtain one cold January night after getting drunk on beer, wrapping a white T-shirt around his rifle and walking toward the demilitarised zone with the North.

"I knew 100 per cent what I was doing but I did not know the consequences. I should have asked for ... a discharge, but I didn't. It was a mistake."

He also admitted "aiding the enemy" by teaching North Koreans English but denied encouraging disloyalty and soliciting other personnel to desert, charges that were dismissed by the US Army judge.

The Army had claimed that within weeks of deserting, Jenkins' voice was heard over loudspeakers singing the praises of his adopted home and the North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, and that he appeared in an anti-American film, playing a villainous American stooge. Jenkins claimed his career as a Cold War propagandist and later English teacher at a military college near Pyongyang had been motivated by fear: "You don't say no to North Korea. You say one thing bad about Kim Il-sung and you dig your own hole, because you're gone." He said that his handlers had "tied me up and beat the hell out of me" after he told them he wanted to quit teaching. "That time I didn't go back to the university for 20 days, my face was messed up so bad."

The relatively mild sentence was the result of a plea bargain struck before the hearing began between Jenkins and the commander of the US Army in Japan. The US was desperate to avoid an unpopular verdict in the country of one of its closest allies during the conflict in Iraq, where 550 Japanese troops are based. There is enormous public sympathy in Japan for the plight of Jenkins, his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two daughters.

Ms Soga was kidnapped as a teenager in 1978 by North Korean agents from her home on the coast of the Sea of Japan. She married Jenkins and said they were "drawn together by mutual loneliness" in Pyongyang. In October 2002, she returned with four other abductees to an ecstatic welcome in Tokyo, leaving her family behind in North Korea and starting a drama that has transfixed Japan since. After much diplomatic haggling, Jenkins finally left North Korea with their daughters Belinda and Mika in July and was reunited with his wife in Indonesia. In September, he was persuaded to return to Japan to confront his past. In the mid-1980s, Jenkins and three other suspected American deserters were living in Pyongyang. Two have died, Jenkins said, but the third remains in the North.

For weeks after Jenkins left Pyongyang, the Japanese media debated to what extent the former National Guardsman from North Carolina and his children had been brainwashed by North Korea, or whether they really believed in the "Great Leader", Kim Il-sung.

Any doubt that Jenkins harbours a desire to return to his old life has been dispelled by today's testimony, which is likely to anger Pyongyang.

Ms Soga, who has until now remained largely silent about her life in Pyongyang, asked yesterday's military court for leniency, saying her husband had provided for his family despite their difficult life in the reclusive Stalinist state. She said: "My only hope now is to make our small bit of happiness as a family bigger. I hope you take that into consideration."

Given Jenkins' unlikely slap in the face to Uncle Sam in 1965, and with the US again at war, there was speculation that his former commanders would opt for revenge rather than compassion, but Howard Baker, the US ambassador to Japan, sounded a conciliatory note last night after the verdict was released. "My personal wish now is that Mr Jenkins and his family mark today as an important step toward a future that is more fulfilling and peaceful," he said. "I wish them well."

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