An American facing desertion charges after nearly 40 years in North Korea has met with a U.S. military lawyer. The closely watched case has become a sensitive issue in Japanese-American relations.

Japanese and U.S. government officials confirm that Sergeant Charles Jenkins met the military lawyer Thursday afternoon in a Tokyo hospital.

Sergeant Jenkins has had little contact with the United States since he crossed the border into North Korea from South Korea in 1965 while serving in the U.S. Army.

Japanese officials reportedly have pressed him to work out a plea bargain with a U.S. military court so he can live with his family in Japan.

Thursday's meeting was expected to be the first in a series with his military lawyer, who flew to Tokyo from a U.S. base in South Korea.

Kyoko Nakayama is the Japanese cabinet's intermediary with Sergeant Jenkins and his family.

Ms. Nakayama says the case is now out of the hands of the Japanese government, and is a matter between the U.S. government and Mr. Jenkins.

The ailing 64-year-old is charged with desertion, aiding the enemy, encouraging disloyalty and soliciting other personnel to desert.

Some of his relatives in the United States believe he was kidnapped and brainwashed by the North Koreans.

Under a military agreement with Tokyo, the United States could demand that Japan hand over Sergeant Jenkins for prosecution. Tokyo has asked Washington to take humanitarian issues into consideration.

Sergeant Jenkins's fate has been closely watched here because he is married to Hitomi Soga, who was kidnapped from Japan by North Korean agents and kept there for decades. They met in North Korea and now have two daughters.

Ms. Soga was allowed to leave North Korea two years ago, but her husband and daughters could not leave until several weeks ago. They were reunited in Indonesia last month.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters Thursday he is eager to find a way for the family to stay united.

Mr. Koizumi says his government will work to ensure that Ms. Soga and her family can live in Japan.

Sergeant Jenkins has been in a Tokyo hospital since he flew here with his family from Jakarta. Doctors say he is not seriously ill but needs to rest because he is suffering from severe stress.