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Abduction throws ex-soldier, wife into diplomatic fray
TOKYO -- Former U.S. soldier Charles Jenkins and his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, were brought together decades ago in North Korea by a strange Cold War twist. He was an accused U.S. Army deserter, she was kidnapped from Japan by communist spies.
Now, the couple could be torn apart by an equally unlikely turn of events -- an emerging tug-of-war over their fate between North Korea, Japan and its top ally, the United States.
Soga is one of five known survivors among at least 13 Japanese abducted to the North by communist spies in the 1970s. Along with the other four, she is now in Japan for her first homecoming in nearly a quarter century.
Tokyo wants to bring all the families of the abductees to Japan for good -- including Jenkins, who remains in the North, and the couple's two North Korean-born teenage daughters.
But North Korea is balking. And U.S. law has caused a kink in the plan.
Even if Jenkins were allowed to leave the insular cocoon of North Korea for Japan, the United States may pressure Tokyo to extradite the North Carolina native to face trial for desertion. If found guilty, he faces up to five years in prison.
"As far as the military is concerned, Sgt. Jenkins was being carried in a deserter status and still is," U.S. Army Maj. Steve Stover said Wednesday at the Pentagon. "He, on his own free will, went over to North Korea."
In 1965, Jenkins was posted in South Korea when he allegedly left his patrol, crossed the demilitarized zone and joined the communists. He left four defection notes in his barracks.
Jenkins conceded his legal predicament earlier this month, while bidding farewell to Soga in Pyongyang as she boarded a Tokyo-bound jet for her Japanese homecoming. He told a Japanese diplomat that he decided to stay behind because of the problems he might face.
So, as his wife's plane climbed into the sky, Jenkins waved through a security fence.
"He looked very lonely," said Kyoko Nakayama, special adviser to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Jenkins, 62, spent 15 years in the North before he met Soga, 43. The couple married in 1980. Their daughters, aged 19 and 17, are students at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, according to North Korea.
Now Jenkins' fate is literally married to that of the five Japanese abductees.
While the returnees' current homecoming was intended to last no more than two weeks, the Japanese government now says they won't go back to the North until the children and Jenkins are allowed to join them here.
Japan's deputy chief Cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, petitioned the State Department to grant Jenkins amnesty last week so he could resettle with his family in Japan.
Stover, the Army spokesman, said that if Jenkins came to Japan, Army intelligence officers would want to ask him about his experiences in the North. After that, they would decide whether to bring charges against him.
Under war conditions, desertion is punishable by death. When done with the "intent to avoid hazardous duty or shirk important service," it brings dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and up to five years in prison.