Administration officials say the United States has indefinitely postponed a request to Japan for the handover of an American army sergeant alleged to have defected to North Korea in 1965. Sergeant Charles Jenkins, now ailing and 64 years old, is hospitalized in Japan, after arriving there with his Japanese wife on Sunday.
Officials say the United States has put off, at least for the time being, a request to the Japanese government for the handover of Sergeant Jenkins, who faces desertion and other charges stemming from his apparent defection to North Korea four decades ago.
The issue is a sensitive one in U.S.-Japanese relations, owing to the fact that, while in North Korea, the American serviceman married a Japanese woman who had been kidnapped to North Korea by agents of the Pyongyang government in 1978.
The wife was allowed to return to Japan, along with other abductees two years ago, and was reunited with her husband in Indonesia earlier this month.
Sergeant Jenkins, needing abdominal surgery and hobbled by other health problems, flew to Japan with his family on Sunday. While the United States has asserted the right to have him turned over to U.S. custody under the basing agreement for U.S. forces in Japan, it did not do so immediately.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said that, after discussing the case with senior Japanese officials, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, agreed to delay a handover request because of Sergeant Jenkins' condition.
"It's clear already that we are trying to work this very closely with our Japanese friends and allies, that we are considerate of the humanitarian situation of Sergeant Jenkins and family," he said. "We're considerate of the medical condition. And while we do expect to present a legal request for custody at the appropriate time, we won't be doing that right away, and we'll keep in touch with the Japanese government, as we proceed in this matter."
Mr. Boucher declined to say at what stage in Sergeant Jenkins' medical treatment the United States might request custody, and a senior diplomat who spoke to reporters here said it was at least a possibility that such a request might never come.
Sergeant Jenkins disappeared while on patrol near the Demilitarized Zone in Korea in 1965, and later appeared in anti-American North Korean propaganda films.
U.S. officials say he left notes stating his intention to defect, but Sergeant Jenkins' family members in the United States say they believe he was kidnapped and "brainwashed" by the North Koreans.
Spokesman Boucher said Sergeant Jenkins is still considered an active-duty soldier, and falls under the authority of the U.S. military under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement.