TOKYO—Nearly 40 years after he vanished across the demilitarized zone into North Korea, Charles Robert Jenkins is to appear in a U.S. military court Wednesday to face charges of desertion and aiding the enemy.
The Jenkins court-martial, being held at the U.S. Army's Camp Zama here, has sparked a vigorous debate about how seriously the Pentagon should punish an ailing, 64-year-old former GI whose alleged crime harks back to the Cold War.
Jenkins has an unlikely champion in the Japanese government, which has urged leniency so that he can live here with his wife, a Japanese woman who was abducted by North Korean agents in 1978 and released two years ago. The couple has two daughters.
But forgiveness may not be so simple. More than 50 years after the Korean War ended without a formal peace treaty, North Korea and the United States remain archenemies, with Washington branding the Communist regime a state sponsor of terrorism, a member of an "axis of evil" and a nuclear threat.
"Desertion is a very serious crime, especially in wartime. He was working for the North Koreans, who are not very nice people, as we all know Jenkins ought to be in jail for the rest of his life," said Darrell E. Best, a retired lieutenant colonel who was Jenkins' commanding officer in South Korea at the time of his alleged desertion in 1965.
Others argue that Jenkins has suffered enough by the fact that he has spent most of his life in one of the most impoverished and oppressive countries in the world.
"He has done his tour in hell already," said Brendon Carr, a former military intelligence official now practicing law in Seoul. "His daily punishment the last 40 years must have been waking up and realizing what a fool he had been to defect to North Korea."
Jenkins was one of seven children from one of the poorest families in Rich Square, N.C., population 1,000. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade and lied about his age to join the National Guard at 15. He later switched to the Army. Until the time of his alleged desertion, he was said to be a loyal enlisted man — so much so that he had "U.S. Army" tattooed on one arm and "Mom and Dad" on the other.
By 1965, he had become a sergeant stationed in South Korea. About 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 5 that year, the 24-year-old Jenkins was on patrol with his unit in the DMZ. Saying he had heard a noise and wanted to investigate, he left his fellow soldiers and disappeared into the dense underbrush, never to return.
Soon afterward, investigators from the Army's criminal division broke into his foot locker and found a note addressed to his mother saying he was going to North Korea.
Jenkins did not explain why. To this day, the reasons for his apparent defection remain a mystery. Unlike other deserters, he was not facing disciplinary troubles with the Army. He had no known Communist leanings, or any knowledge or interest in politics.
In today's court proceedings, Jenkins is expected to offer an explanation for what happened and shed some light on what happened during his years in North Korea. He is believed to have lived in the capital, Pyongyang, most of the time, occasionally working as an English teacher, appearing in anti-American propaganda and acting in films.
Back in North Carolina, some of Jenkins' relatives believe that he was kidnapped, but might not remember because of extensive brainwashing and abuse over his four decades in North Korea.
"He is an old man now. He doesn't have the time or ability to fight the charges of desertion, so he will agree to enter a plea. All he wants is his freedom," Shir-Lee Hyman, a niece by marriage, said in a telephone interview.
Jenkins was released from North Korea in July under an agreement negotiated by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He turned himself in to U.S. military authorities in Japan in September.
Ever since, he has been back in U.S. military uniform, working in a filing room at a salary of about $3,300 a month and living at Camp Zama on the outskirts of Tokyo. But he has been confined to the base pending the outcome of the court-martial.
Relatives in North Carolina say they expect Jenkins, if released, will want to continue living in Japan with his wife and daughters. They are hoping he will come home at least to visit his 92-year-old mother, who is in a nursing home.