The Sergeant Who Wants To Come In From The Cold
The Sergeant Who Wants To Come In From The Cold
by Richard S. Ehrlich
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- An American sergeant who slipped into North Korea in 1965 may soon emerge from his time-warp existence, if he can dodge a U.S. court martial for allegedly deserting the army and defecting to the communist regime.
Charles Robert Jenkins, originally from North Carolina, was a 25-year-old army sergeant stationed in South Korea when he mysteriously disappeared across the heavily mined border into North Korea before dawn on January 5, 1965.
Three weeks later, North Korea's propaganda radio announced that Mr. Jenkins had voluntarily defected to the communists.
Mr. Jenkins' relatives and supporters, however, insist he may have been kidnapped by the North Koreans, held against his will and brainwashed to believe that if he returned to America he would be shot by fooled U.S. officials.
Unless Mr. Jenkins, now 64, is able to confirm why he entered North Korea 39 years ago -- before Americans walked on the moon -- the truth may never be known.
In North Korea's Orwellian capital, Pyongyang, Mr. Jenkins taught English, but little else is known of his existence there.
One of his students was Hitomi Soga, a Japanese woman who was kidnapped from Japan and smuggled into North Korea in 1978 when she was a 19-year-old nursing student.
In 2002, North Korea admitted it arranged the abduction of at least 13 innocent Japanese during the 1970s and 80s, to force them to teach North Korean spies how to speak Japanese and infiltrate Japan.
Of the 13 kidnapped Japanese, eight died during captivity. The remaining five were publicly flown to Tokyo in 2002, because North Korea wanted to sweeten hostile relations with its neighbor.
Mr. Jenkins and Ms. Soga, however, married in 1980, despite their 20-year age gap and culture-clashing pasts. They have two daughters: Mika, 21, and Belinda, who turns 19 on July 23.
Their daughters could not leave North Korea with Ms. Soga in 2002. They reside with Mr. Jenkins and were enrolled at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, a campus for pampered children of the elite.
In May, Tokyo asked Washington to pardon Mr. Jenkins so he could leave North Korea and join his 44-year-old wife without fear of arrest by American authorities, but U.S. officials turned down the request, according to the Japan Times.
In a surprise announcement, however, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda offered on June 29 to host a reunion for Mr. Jenkins, Mika and Belinda so they could meet Ms. Soga on neutral ground -- in Indonesia.
"Wirayuda made the offer after meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun before an Asia-Pacific security forum in Jakarta," Agence-France Presse reported.
Mr. Paek reportedly agreed to the reunion but emphasized that Mr. Jenkins would have to decide where "they can feel safe and comfortable."
They may fly to Indonesia before the end of July, to celebrate Belinda's birthday, according to intense speculation among Japanese reporters.
Indonesia was selected for a rendezvous because Jakarta does not have an extradition treaty with Washington.
Mr. Jenkins apparently refuses to leave North Korea if it means he will be sent to America for a court martial.
"If in fact he is a deserter and defector, I believe he has paid enough for his crimes," his niece, Susan C. Cutting, wrote to U.S. President George Bush in an emotional appeal.
"It is very hard to believe in our system of government, when men like Richard Nixon get pardoned for their crimes and men like Bill Clinton commit perjury and do not get impeached. Vietnam War deserters and draft dodgers got pardons, and I believe my uncle should also," Ms. Cutting added.
"Our family has never believed the allegations that my uncle defected."
Mr. Jenkins never expressed dissatisfaction with his life in the army, and the handful of letters found after he disappeared -- which apparently bid farewell to his mother -- were North Korean "forgeries", the family said.
"The North Korean government has a history of kidnapping people and lying about it," Ms. Cutting wrote.
"If, as was stated, my uncle defected in order to avoid the war in Vietnam, why would he choose to go to North Korea, when he easily could have gone to Canada or Mexico when he was home only weeks before this incident?" she added.
"I understand that this is a different situation since he has supposedly cooperated with the enemy, but we believe he is not a defector but a prisoner of war and has only done what he was forced to do."
Mr. Jenkins' relatives said despite their letters to the White House, "We have only gotten back letters stating the president is looking into the situation, form letters."
Mr. Jenkins' relatives created a website focusing on his case, including their letters to President Bush, in hopes that his name can be cleared and he can come home a free man.
They are asking for information from anyone who might know why he entered North Korea or his current condition.
"He has been called a deserter, defector, coward and traitor," they wrote.
Referring to his appearances in films and on the radio while in North Korea, they said he may have suffered "brainwashing, torture and starvation."
"We can't say that no one was holding a gun when he participated in propaganda for the North Koreans."
Mr. Jenkins enlisted in the army in 1955, was in the 1st Cavalry Division, 8th Cavalry Regiment, and did his first tour of duty in South Korea from 1960-61, they said.
He then served three years in the army in Europe before returning to North Korea in November 1964, they said.
"He went missing while patrolling the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] with three other men upon hearing a noise in the early morning of January 5, 1965, after asking his fellow soldiers to stay back while he investigated the noise," Mr. Jenkins' relatives wrote on their website.
According to the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America's Missing Servicemen -- which also monitors cases from World War Two, Vietnam and the Gulf War -- Mr. Jenkins is one of four American servicemen who the U.S. believes defected to North Korea in the 1960s.
"Did Jenkins walk across the DMZ to North Korea or was he kidnapped, like his future wife and the other Japanese citizens?" the alliance said in a statement describing his case.
"Was Jenkins and the other Americans needed for the North Korean spy school, as Ms. Soga and the Japanese nationals were?" the alliance added.
After the 1950-53 U.S.-Korean War, the Korean peninsula remained divided along the DMZ.
In 2002, the north's official Korean Central News Agency said: "The issue of Americans who defected to our side -- from U.S. forces' units stationed in South Korea after the war -- may be smoothly settled depending on the termination of the hostile relationship" between Pyongyang and Washington.
The presence of American defectors in North Korea "is not contrary to the international law on political exiles and the right to protect them," the communists' news agency added.
Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/