TOKYO – Gripping a cane and looking haggard, an American accused of deserting the U.S. Army and defecting to North Korea was hospitalized immediately after he arrived in Japan on Sunday, putting himself within the reach of U.S. authorities for the first time in 39 years.
Charles Jenkins, who vanished from his platoon in 1965 and later played devilish American characters in communist propaganda films, faces possible U.S. military prosecution on desertion and other charges in Japan, although American officials have suggested they will delay taking him into custody.
Jenkins’ family in the United States has denied he is a deserter, maintaining that he was kidnapped by North Korea.
Jenkins’ arrival, broadcast live by Japanese TV networks, drew deep public sympathy over the plight of his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, who married him after she was kidnapped in Japan by North Korean agents in 1978 and taken to the communist country. The couple has two daughters, Mika, 21, and Belinda, 18.
The family arrived on a Japanese government-chartered flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, where they had held an emotional reunion after nearly two years of separation. Soga returned to Japan from North Korea with four other abductees in 2002, but Jenkins stayed behind with their daughters, fearing U.S. prosecution. Japan has an extradition treaty with the United States; Indonesia does not.
Japanese and American officials say Jenkins, 64, needs medical attention after abdominal surgery in North Korea and for other health problems.
He stepped painfully down the stairs from the government plane, clutching his cane as Soga supported him. When someone shouted to ask him how he felt, he shook his head sadly as he limped to a bus that took the family to a hospital.
The Japanese government, eager to reunite Soga’s family, has pushed for U.S. clemency for the North Carolina native and stood by its position that Jenkins’ health should take priority over his legal problems.
Jenkins reached Japan just days after authorities here helped Washington with another fugitive case – that of chess legend Bobby Fischer, who has been sought by the United States for attending a 1992 match in Yugoslavia despite international sanctions.
Fischer was detained Tuesday in Japan, in a move that showed it willing to cooperate while still making the case on leniency for Jenkins.