TOKYO – Responding to Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins' (search) pledge to surrender after spending four decades in North Korea, U.S. military officials say they are ready to put the frail 64-year-old back in uniform, give him a haircut, set him up in on-base housing — and then try him for desertion.
"We're always ready to take in deserters and receive them back," said Maj. John Amberg, spokesman for the U.S. Army, Japan headquarters at Camp Zama (search), just south of Tokyo.
Ending months of silence, Jenkins said in a statement this week he would turn himself in at Camp Zama as soon as he's deemed fit enough to leave the hospital. Jenkins has been hospitalized in Tokyo since he was flown here on a plane chartered by the Japanese government in July. Japanese media have speculated Jenkins could be released within days.
Once he surrenders, he would be assigned to a new unit, receive pay and other benefits and be able to live on base with his family. He would be placed under custody only if he is considered a flight risk, dangerous or seen as likely to tamper with witnesses.
The Jenkins case, however, is anything but ordinary.
His wife, Hitomi Soga, is one of more than a dozen Japanese who were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s and forced to train the North's spies. Seen as a tragic hero in Japan, she was repatriated after a landmark summit between North Korea leader Kim Jong Il (search) and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002. Jenkins, fearing prosecution, stayed behind with their two daughters.
Facing an outpouring of sympathy for Soga, Koizumi personally led the effort to reunite the family in Japan.
At another summit in May, Koizumi won approval for a meeting between Jenkins and Soga in Indonesia. After a brief reunion there, the family was whisked to Tokyo, ostensibly because of Jenkins' poor health. He is believed to have a heart condition, though details remain vague.
Public sentiment here strongly favors leniency for Jenkins so the family can live together. Koizumi vowed Wednesday to "continue to do all we can to help."
Accused of leaving his Army patrol along the border between North and South Korea in January 1965, Jenkins faces charges of desertion, aiding the enemy and encouraging other soldiers to desert or to be disloyal.
The maximum penalty for peacetime desertion is life in prison. But punishment also can be as light as a simple dishonorable discharge.
Jenkins has been meeting frequently with an Army lawyer, Capt. James Culp, in recent weeks and is expected to seek some sort of pretrial agreement to guarantee him a light punishment in exchange for information on the secretive communist North.
Leniency, however, might not sit well with military members and veterans groups, particularly when U.S. soldiers are braving combat in Iraq.
The charges also don't necessarily paint a sympathetic picture.
Jenkins, originally from Rich Square, N.C., allegedly participated in broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone urging other American soldiers to desert. He acted in anti-U.S. propaganda films and is believed to have taught for several years at a training center for North Korean intelligence agents.
Suspicions have also been raised he might have been involved in the interrogations of U.S. sailors taken by the North when it captured the USS Pueblo in 1968. One sailor was killed and 82 were taken prisoner. During their captivity, crew members were beaten with lumber, burned on radiators and had their teeth kicked out by North Korean soldiers.
In an interview published Wednesday in the Hong Kong-based magazine Far Eastern Economic Review, Jenkins was quoted as saying he detested the North Korean government and tried to escape shortly after he arrived.
The article Wednesday, cited legal documents filed on Jenkins' behalf saying he tried to flee North Korea in 1966. In an interview from his hospital room, he said he and his wife both opposed the regime.
"My wife and I became very close ... because she hated the [North] Korean government as well as I," the article quoted Jenkins as saying.
The magazine said Jenkins would base his legal defense in part on claims he cooperated with the communist regime to avoid the death penalty and keep his family together. Jenkins has also offered to provide information on the use of foreign nationals in the North Korean spy program.
Army spokesman Amberg stressed that, until Jenkins actually shows up at the base, the situation remains fluid.
Whether Jenkins' court-martial will even be conducted in Japan is a decision to be made by Army officials in Fort Knox, Ky. If the court-martial is held at Camp Zama, a judge will have to be flown in because no one stationed at the base is qualified to preside.