Charles Jenkins, 64, turned himself in to the U.S. military in Japan on Saturday. He will face charges that he deserted to communist North Korea four decades ago while on active duty in South Korea. Senior Asia editor, Jennifer Janin in Hong Kong, spoke to VOA's Steve Herman who was on the scene at the Camp Zama Army base in Japan.
JANIN: Steve, you're at Camp Zama where Sgt. Jenkins has surrendered to the U.S. Army. He allegedly deserted his post into North Korea more than 40 years ago and now will face charges. Can you tell us a little bit about the procedure and what happened today?
HERMAN: Sgt. Jenkins left the Tokyo hospital, shook hands with the doctor at the entrance to the hospital and with his family, his Japanese wife and his two daughters born in North Korea, got into a van which was driven to Camp Zama, about a two, two and half hour journey from Tokyo. At the gate the van was escorted in, Sgt Jenkins got out of the vehicle and gave a long salute and he was then escorted into the provost marshal's office. Inside the office he changed into an army uniform and he is now technically back on active duty after 40 years as a sergeant in the United States Army.
JANIN: So Sgt Jenkins is going to be living on the U.S. Army base and working while lawyers there decide what charges he will face.
HERMAN: Depending on the medical circumstances, yes, he will be on active duty and could be assigned any duties that his commanding officer decides to give him. We understand that his family is also going to live on the base with him until the legal proceedings are concluded. He will earn the normal pay of a sergeant in the United States Army for the amount of years he's been in the Army, which is under 10.
JANIN: Is this normal procedure for the U.S. Army dealing with alleged deserters? My understanding is normally that they would put them in handcuffs and leg irons and they would be held in detention while their case was pending. Is there any explanation on why Sgt Jenkins is being treated any differently?
HERMAN: Well, there's no doubt that Sgt. Jenkins is being treated quite differently and these are extraordinary circumstances with high level negotiations that went on between the Japanese and United States government. There was concern by the Japanese government and apparently by Sgt. Jenkins, that if he did return to a U.S. military post, that he would be put into handcuffs and be incarcerated until a hearing. They may say that's because of his age and medical condition, but most observers would say there are also political factors that are weighing into this.
JANIN: That chief political factor would be the fact that his wife is Japanese and she was kidnapped by the North Koreans in the late 1970s. She has waged a two year battle to allow her husband and her two daughters to join her in Japan. Obviously the Japanese government is aware of the public sympathy that she holds. Can you tell us what the Japanese government would like to see happen in this case?
HERMAN: The Japanese government has made few comments about what it would like to see happen. Obviously there is huge public empathy for Sgt. Jenkins' wife, Hitomi Soga, because of the circumstances with her in North Korea and the fact that she was kidnapped, and her mother was kidnapped and is not accounted for, and that she met and married this alleged American Army deserter in North Korea who was her English teacher. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has taken a personal interest in this case. He had met with Sgt. Jenkins in Pyongyang and offered him passage after his wife Hitomi Soga had returned to Japan. At that time Sgt. Jenkins was apparently reluctant to leave that day with Prime Minister Koizumi. Many Japanese press reports say that at that time Prime Minister Koizumi guaranteed that if he were brought to Japan he would not end up in an U.S. military prison.
JANIN: Steve, before Sgt. Jenkins came to Japan, his family, I believe, in the United States had long said that he accidentally crossed the border into North Korea and they didn't believe he was a deserter. Recently, Sgt. Jenkins gave an interview to an Asian-based news magazine, in which he said that he'd often thought he would like to turn himself in order to clear his conscience. So what is the public position of the Jenkins camp in terms of how he will plead in this case?
HERMAN: Well, we haven't had any public statement from Sgt. Jenkins or anyone in the U.S. military to that effect yet, There will be some sort of statement that will come out when the legal proceedings get underway. We could see the court martial occur fairly quickly. But until that time we're unlikely to hear any statement directly from Sgt. Jenkins on exactly what were the circumstances of his entry into North Korea. Japanese sources say they expect that Sgt. Jenkins will plead guilty to one of the six charges against him. However, it's not clear which charge that will be. Obviously the most serious charge against him is desertion because the ultimate penalty for that is the death penalty. Nobody is expecting that Sgt. Jenkins will end up being sentenced to death, that there will most certainly be some sort of plea bargain based on what we have seen happening so far.