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U.S. deserter gets dishonorable discharge

A U.S. soldier who deserted to North Korea four decades ago was on Wednesday given 30 days confinement and a dishonorable discharge, after confessing he had been scared and wanted to leave the army.
File photo of US army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins arriving at Camp Zama
U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, pictured on Sept. 11, was on Wednesday given 30 days confinement and a dishonorable discharge, after confessing to deserting the military four decades ago.Issei Kato / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

A U.S. soldier who deserted to North Korea four decades ago was on Wednesday given 30 days confinement and a dishonorable discharge, after confessing he had been scared and wanted to leave the army.

The sentencing of Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins concludes one of the Cold War’s strangest dramas and resolves a diplomatic headache for the United States and its close ally, Japan, which had sought leniency out of sympathy for his Japanese wife. They married after she was abducted to North Korea in 1978.

Jenkins, 64, frail and dressed in army uniform, pleaded guilty in a court at the U.S. army’s Camp Zama near Tokyo to deserting to North Korea in 1965, and to aiding the enemy.

“I no longer wanted to be in the military,” Jenkins said, as his wife, Hitomi Soga, and two North Korean-born daughters watched solemnly.

He denied encouraging disloyalty and soliciting other service members to desert and prosecutors dropped those charges.

A 24-year-old army sergeant from tiny Rich Square in North Carolina, Jenkins disappeared one night in January 1965 while on patrol near the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

Cold and dark
An emotional Jenkins told the court he had deserted to avoid hazardous duty in South Korea and escape combat in Vietnam.

“It was Christmas time, it was also cold and dark. I started to drink alcohol. I never had drunk so much alcohol,” he said, choking back sobs.

He said he drank 10 beers before taking his men on patrol, where he told them to wait while he checked the road below. Using a new compass as his guide, he walked toward North Korea, holding a rifle with a white T-shirt tied around it.

Jenkins said he had planned to go to Russia and turn himself in to the U.S. embassy there. “I knew 100 percent what I was doing, but I didn’t know the consequences behind it,” he said. “I didn’t know that North Korea was going to keep me.”

The sentence, which was in line with a pre-trial agreement, will allow Jenkins to resume private life with his wife after his brief confinement.

Jenkins, who stood impassive while the sentence was read, forfeits his pay and allowances and his status will be reduced to the lowest army rank.

Happy marriage
President Bush had been said to be reluctant to give Jenkins special treatment while U.S. troops are fighting in Iraq, and ahead of the U.S. presidential election.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, however, has spent political capital by backing the U.S.-led war in Iraq and sending troops there on a risky reconstruction mission.

Jenkins had been expected to plead guilty to some charges and offer to tell what he knew about the secretive state in return for a punishment less than the maximum of life in prison.

Recalling when he first met Soga, Jenkins said: “She was 20 years younger than me and no one thought that she could love me.

“Our mutual hate for North Korea brought us together and kept us together for 24 years,” he sobbed. “Marriage to my wife brought me happiness.”

Fear for the safety of his family and for himself made it impossible to refuse demands to teach English to North Korean soldiers, said Jenkins, who never attended high school. He also played the part of an evil U.S. spy in a North Korean propaganda film.

“You don’t say no to North Korea. You say one thing bad about Kim il-sung and you dig your own hole, because you’re gone,” Jenkins said, citing the late leader of the secretive state.

Sympathy runs high in Japan for Soga, a shy but poised woman who was allowed to return to Japan two years ago along with four other Japanese abducted to North Korea.

Soda had to leave behind Jenkins and their two North Korean-born daughters -- Mika, 21, and 19-year-old Brinda.

The family was reunited in Indonesia before Jenkins was brought to Tokyo for medical treatment in July before he gave himself up in September and returned to active duty.