Eriko Sugita  /  Reuters file
Former U.S. army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins walks hand-in-hand with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, as they arrive at Tokyo's Haneda airport on Sunday.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 7/26/2004 1:37:46 PM ET 2004-07-26T17:37:46

After a bit part in a North Korean propaganda film 20 years ago, former U.S. soldier Charles Robert Jenkins is playing the biggest role of his mysterious life in a soap opera that has captivated the Japanese public.

Whereas the 64-year-old is wanted as a deserter from the U.S. Army in his homeland, his four-decade long ordeal in the communist nation where he met his wife, Japanese native Hitoma Soga, has become a compelling story in Japan, especially after their happy reunion earlier this month.

But it's an unfinished opera as Japan awaits Washington's next move against a former Army man viewed by the Pentagon as a deserter and traitor.

With a cane in one hand and leaning against his wife, Jenkins on Sunday stepped off a plane chartered by the Japanese government from Indonesia where he and his two North Korean born daughters reunited with Soga after 22 months of separation.

The arrival was broadcast live on all of the Japanese television networks during primetime and it was a moment the public had awaited eagerly for almost two years, ever since Soga, kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s, was returned to Japan and her life story became a national obsession.

Coming to Japan was a big risk for Jenkins since Washington has an extradition treaty with Tokyo. The reason Indonesia was chosen for his initial reunion was because there is no such treaty between Indonesia and the United States.

But after undergoing medical examinations in the Indonesian capital, the Japanese government found that Jenkins was suffering from complications due to a surgery performed in North Korea earlier this year, and although not life-threatening, decided that he required immediate attention at a more sophisticated medical facility in Tokyo.

Special consideration
Upon their arrival, Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters, “We’re going to have to ask the United States for special consideration.”

Meanwhile, the State Department has indicated that even though the United States will continue to seek legal custody of Jenkins, for humanitarian considerations, it will wait until an “appropriate time.”

The national Asahi newspaper said Friday that Tokyo will discuss with Jenkins and his family a possible plea bargain with U.S. officials. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker suggested the idea to Japanese officials, the daily newspaper said.

Much of the last 40 years of Charles Jenkins’ life is still a mystery.

According to the U.S. government, Sgt. Jenkins was patrolling the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea when he disappeared on the morning of Jan. 5, 1965.

But other than his brief appearance in a North Korean propaganda film, little else is known about Jenkins except that Washington is still seeking his custody for charges including army desertion and propagating for the enemy.

Yet, it is the ordeal of his Japanese wife that has made Jenkins a household name here.

Soga was a 19-year-old trainee nurse when North Korean agents kidnapped her in 1978 from her hometown, Sado Island, tucked along the eastern coast of Japan.

But unlike the other abduction cases, her story didn’t come to light until the historic 2002 summit between Prime Minister Koizumi and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il, who admitted to the systematic kidnapping of Japanese nationals during the 1970s for language training.

Several weeks after North Korea’s surprise admission, five abductees including Soga were repatriated to Japan. But it was a bittersweet homecoming for Soga, who like the other four hadn’t stepped on Japanese soil for a quarter of a century.

Upon her arrival, she learned for the first time that her mother Miyoshi had also gone missing about the same time as her own disappearance. The North Korean government has denied any involvement, but many believe that the mother also was abducted by North Korean spies.

Furthermore, even though she was at last reunited with her father and her twin sister and received an emotional welcoming by her former classmates and Sado villagers, she was once again separated, this time from her husband and her two daughters left behind in Pyongyang.

“Who is responsible for separating me from my family? Who is going to reunite us again?” Soga asked during a press conference.

Since then, for the past two years, the nation has followed Soga’s every step as she gradually became acclimated back into Japanese life: observing her take driving lessons, getting her nurse's permit and transforming herself from the woman wearing a gray suit with a Kim Jong Il badge two years ago to the beaming social worker in jeans and sweatshirt.

But the drama for her family is far from over. On Friday, doctors in Tokyo held a press conference and explained that Jenkins is making a gradual recovery and although his condition does not appear to be serious, he will still need some more time at the hospital.

But at some point, Jenkins will have to deal with the U.S. demands for his return -- and the entire Japanese nation is anxiously waiting to see if indeed Hitomi Soga and her family will be get their happy ending.

NBC's Arata Yamanoto is based in Tokyo.


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