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US to Delay Prosecuting Alleged Army Deserter - 2004-07-17

The U.S. government has indicated that it has no immediate plans to prosecute an alleged Army deserter who married a Japanese woman while the two were in North Korea. The decision clears the way for Charles Jenkins to fly to Japan Sunday with his wife and their two North Korean-born daughters.

U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker has told the Japanese foreign ministry that that Army Sgt. Charles Jenkins, who has spent the last 40 years in North Korea, remains on active duty and is subject to American prosecution for allegedly deserting in 1965.

However, in a statement issued Saturday by the U.S. Embassy, Mr. Baker said Washington was "sympathetic to Sgt. Jenkins' health condition," which "may delay our request for his transfer to U.S. custody." The statement quoted Mr. Baker as saying that "there are no plans for U.S. officials to see Jenkins in the immediate future."

The 64-year-old Sgt. Jenkins has been in Jakarta for the past week with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two daughters. He met and married Ms. Soga in Pyongyang after North Korean agents kidnapped her from Japan in 1978.

She was repatriated in 2002 with four other Japanese abductees, but he stayed behind because he will automatically be subject to U.S. military jurisdiction once he steps onto Japanese soil.

Despite that risk, the family had made plans to fly to Japan on Sunday even before Mr. Baker issued his statement.

The U.S. decision comes after weeks of discussion between Tokyo and Washington over Sgt. Jenkins's fate. All five Japanese abductees known to be alive were sent back to Japan by North Korea in 2002, and their family members were given permission to join them earlier this year.

Sgt. Jenkins and the couple's two daughters at first remained behind in North Korea, however, while Tokyo lobbied the Americans to forego courtmartialing him for allegedly deserting his post on the Demilitarized Zone in 1965.

As late as Friday, it still appeared that Washington was determined to put Sgt. Jenkins through the legal system. Mr. Baker told senior Japanese lawmakers that Sgt. Jenkins should get a lawyer and seek a plea bargain with military prosecutors.

Saturday's statement quoted Mr. Baker as saying that Sgt. Jenkins was still on active duty, and therefore subject to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. That agreement says that any active U.S. soldier in Japan must be handed over to the U.S. military in case of a violation of military law.

However, the Japanese say Sgt. Jenkins is in urgent need of medical treatment, to correct a problem resulting from an abdominal operation he had before leaving North Korea.

According to the embassy statement, Mr. Baker told Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi on Friday of Washington's decision not to prosecute Sgt. Jenkins in the immediate future.

He faces three desertion-related charges, and one charge of promoting abandonment of loyalty, by appearing in North Korean propaganda films.