CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Frail but determined, Charles Jenkins (search) surrendered to the United States on Saturday, nearly 40 years after the Army sergeant allegedly defected to North Korea (search) and became a potent propaganda symbol for the isolated communist state.
Jenkins' surrender ends a bizarre, twisting saga that saw him vanish from his Army unit and resurface in propaganda films as various devilish — and inevitably American — characters. He taught English to spies and married a Japanese woman who had been abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s to teach the same spies — and won her freedom in 2002.
The story has captivated Japan, where sympathy for Jenkins' wife, Hitomi Soga, and other Japanese kidnapped by the North over the years is extremely high. Soga and their two children were by Jenkins' side when he stood at attention at Camp Zama (search) and saluted.
"Sir, I'm Sgt. Jenkins and I'm reporting," he told military police at the gate of this base just south of Tokyo.
"You are now under the control of the U.S. Army," Lt. Col. Paul Nigara responded.
Jenkins' decision was also likely to please the Bush administration, which had ruled out a pardon over fears doing so would send the wrong message with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in a concession to Japan, it had backed off demanding custody as he received treatment in a Tokyo hospital for complications related to abdominal surgery he had in the North.
Jenkins, now 64, resumes active duty while the military considers the case for a court-martial, said Col. John Dykstra, a legal officer. A decision could take months.
Meanwhile Jenkins is free to move about on the base and use its facilities, Dykstra said. If a court martial is held, Zama would be the venue.
Jenkins will be issued a new uniform and ID card, given a haircut and offered benefits to which U.S. army sergeants are entitled, including a life insurance policy.
He was assigned to a new unit and would be performing administrative duties pending legal action, officials said
Jenkins is charged with defecting to the North, where he lived for 39 years, and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. U.S. authorities say they have letters he wrote that show he intended to defect.
The Rich Square, N.C. native is widely expected to strike a plea bargain to avoid prison. He has met several times with an Army-appointed attorney to prepare his case. The attorney also accompanied Jenkins here Saturday.
"I expect we have a lot more to face in the days to come," Soga said as she left a Tokyo hotel. "But we hope that the four of us can live together as soon as possible."
Jenkins' family members in North Carolina have argued that he was kidnapped by North Korean agents and taken there against his will.
"Hopefully we can get the truth," Jenkins' nephew, James Hyman, said from his home in Dallas, N.C. He said he believed his uncle would plead guilty to the charge related to his appearance in propaganda films in the plea bargain.
"I'm not ashamed of what my uncle might have done, because I don't believe he did anything wrong," Hyman said.
Jenkins' fate has become the focus of intense interest in Japan because of Soga, who was one of more than a dozen Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s and taken to North Korea.
She and Jenkins met soon after she arrived in the communist state in 1978. Soga was allowed to return to Japan after a historic Japan-North Korea summit in Pyongyang in 2002, but Jenkins and the couple's daughters remained in the North until this summer.
Tokyo arranged a reunion of the family in Jakarta, Indonesia, in July, and then persuaded Jenkins to come to Japan for medical treatment. He has not publicly addressed the charges against him.