December 10, 2004

Charles Jenkins & Hitomi Soga: A Life Unlike Any Other


North Korea
Image By El-Branden Brazil

For the past two years, there has been a lot of interest in the story of Hitomi Soga and her husband, former US Army Sgt., Charles Jenkins.

When Soga was 19, she was kidnapped from Sado Island by North Korean agents in 1978, and taken to the hermit country, where she was forced to teach Japanese. Life changed for her two years later, when she met Jenkins.

Since 1965, Jenkins had remained an enigma ever since his disappearance from South Korea. It was widely assumed that he had deserted, under his own freewill to the North, based on messages that had been left in his locker. His reemergence from obscurity was a result of the North Korean confession that Japanese nationals had been abducted throughout the 1970s and 80s. A suspicion long held by the Japanese government. This caused a national outcry in Japan, with demands for the immediate repatriation of all abductees.

After many negotiations, several of the abductees were allowed to visit Japan, only with guarantees that they would be returned to the Communist state. However, after the emotional return of the abductees, it was impossible for them to go back. Many of them were finally reunited with family members they thought they would never see again.

Hitomi Soga was forced to endure a painful dilemma. While she had no intention of returning to North Korea, she was forced into abandoning her husband, Jenkins, and her two daughters.

Over the past two years, she has led a gallant fight for her family to be reunited in Japan. The government continued to exert pressure on the Pyongyang regime, and the issue was regularly referred to in talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear programme.

On one visit to North Korea, Prime Minister Koizumi met with Jenkins, and asked him to come back to Japan. However, Jenkins refused, because he feared being court-martialed as a deserter by the US military. Due to extradition treaties between Japan and the US, it is a legal requirement that criminal suspects are cordially handed over when required.

The US was particularly interested in meeting Jenkins, because he would not only answer many questions about his disappearance, but perhaps, also provide valuable information regarding North Korea.

Koizumi returned to Japan alone. But, Soga continued to campaign. She even visited Washington, in the hope of getting an amnesty for her husband. This was flatly refused by President Bush.

In Japan, there was a massive outpouring of sympathy for Soga and her family. The Japanese government shared in this sentiment, and tried to do whatever it could to influence the US from bringing charges against Jenkins.

It was decided that a country that did not share extradition agreements with the US, would be the best opportunity for a reunion of the family. China and Cambodia offered to help, but Indonesia was selected as the best option.

On July 9th 2004, after two years of separation, the family was finally brought together in Jakarta. Jenkins was given a health check, which resulted in the discovery of prostate issue that needed immediate attention.

The Japanese government insisted that he should return to Japan to receive treatment. His wife coaxed him into agreeing, even though there was a serious chance that he could be arrested and handed over to the US military.

Whether his ailments were real or not, presented an excuse to hospitalize him in Tokyo, allaying any chance of him being arrested. Whilst in hospital, military lawyers visited to discuss the actions that would be taken in charging him.

In September, Jenkins handed himself over to the US military at Camp Zama, where he was immediately taken into custody. The usual rules for deserters were applied to him, and even though he was 64 years old, he was expected to return to duty.

Whilst waiting for his trial, he performed office duties, dressed in a uniform he had not worn for nearly forty years,.

On November 3rd, his trial began. He confessed to deserting, and explained that he had done so out of fear of being sent to Vietnam. At that time, he was regularly consuming ten beers a day, and the pressure of his service became too great. One night, when he was on watch, he tied a white t-shirt to his gun, and crossed over to the North.

He had hoped that he would be taken in by the North Koreans, and then sent on to the Soviet Union, where perhaps he might have been able to negotiate a way out. However, after arriving in the North, he quickly became aware of the serious mistake he had made.

For years, he was forced to live in a sparse one room apartment, with three other US deserters. Everyday, they spent ten hours studying the Juche – Kim Ill Sung’s Communist writings. The North Koreans would often play the Americans against each other, which led to Jenkins regularly receiving severe beatings.

He was forced to teach agents English. On one occasion, his US military tattoo revealed itself under his shirt. He was then sent to a hospital, where it was forcibly removed with a knife and no local anaesthetic.

In 1980, he first met Soga, who came to him for English tuition. Very soon they were sharing stories of their plight, and love quickly developed between them. Their strength as a couple, helped to make their continual suffering bearable.

After hearing his story, the military judge sentenced Jenkins to three weeks imprisonment, with a dishonourable discharge; a lenient sentence for a crime that can carry life imprisonment or even death.

Due to his fine conduct in the military prison, he was discharged five days earlier, and now he will reside with his wife and children, on the island of Sado. It is hoped that this fascinating human drama, will now end happily.

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