CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Four decades after he vanished from his Army unit, a frail, tearful, 64-year-old American soldier pleaded guilty Wednesday to desertion, saying he wanted to avoid dangerous duty on the Korean peninsula and Vietnam.
Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins (search) was given a 30-day sentence and a dishonorable discharge, but the judge recommended suspending the jail term. The decision is up to the military, which was expected to rule on the recommendation soon.
The plea, which came during a court-martial at this Army camp outside of Tokyo, was part of a bargain with U.S. military officials to win Jenkins a lesser sentence.
The maximum sentence in his case was life in prison.
The North Carolina native lived in communist North Korea for 39 years after he fled his post on the Korea peninsula.
"Ma'am, I am in fact guilty," Jenkins told the judge, Col. Denise Vowell. He also pleaded guilty to aiding the enemy by teaching English to military cadets in the 1980s.
However he denied that he advocated the overthrow of the United States in propaganda broadcasts, and pleaded innocent to charges of making disloyal statements. Vowell dropped those accusations.
The American turned himself into U.S. military authorities on Sept. 11, two months after he left Pyongyang and came to Japan for medical treatment. Tokyo called for leniency in his case so he could live in Japan with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga (search), and their two daughters.
In full military dress for the proceedings, Jenkins wept as he described his depression, fears of death and heavy drinking in the days leading up to his Jan. 5, 1965 disappearance from his unit.
He said he fled because he was afraid he would be transferred to dangerous daytime patrols in the Demilitarized Zone (search) between the two Koreas, or worse: Vietnam.
"I started to fear something for myself, but I started to fear even more that I might cause other soldiers to be killed. I started drinking alcohol," he said, bursting into tears. "I never drank so much before."
After 10 days of planning, he headed for North Korea with a white T-shirt tied to his rifle as a surrender flag.
Jenkins told the court of his unlikely plan to ask the North Koreans to send him to the Soviet Union, where he would turn himself in to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and return to the United States.
Instead, Jenkins said he was harshly mistreated in North Korea and forced to teach English to military cadets from 1981 until 1985, adding that refusing to do so would have brought "hardship to me and my family that would never end."
Soga, a Japanese citizen who married Jenkins after she was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978, also pleaded with the court for leniency, saying that Jenkins had provided for his family despite grueling conditions in North Korea.
Vowell had recommended a suspended sentence of six months in jail, but court-martial rules required her to abide by the pre-trial agreement setting the sentence at 30 days. She then recommended that also be suspended.
Jenkins was also demoted to the lowest military ranking, E-1, and was forced to forfeit all pay and stripped of his military benefits. He was to be taken to Yokosuka Naval Base just outside of Tokyo, where he is to be confined unless the sentence is suspended.
The court-martial was the climax to one of the Army's longest desertion sagas. Though Army deserters from the 1940s are still being sought, no deserter has surrendered after as long an absence as Jenkins.
Raised in poverty in Rich Square, N.C., Jenkins joined the Army as a teenager, received a Good Conduct Award after his first tour of duty in South Korea in 1961 and rose to the rank of sergeant.
But after deserting his unit, he participated in North Korean propaganda broadcasts, played an American villain in at least one anti-U.S. movie, and taught English at a university for military cadets.
His whereabouts were a mystery until the Pentagon confirmed in the mid-1980s that he and three other suspected American deserters were living in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.
Jenkins became the focus of intense negotiations in 2002, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (search) admitted in a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) that Soga and others had been abducted.
Soga and four other Japanese abductees were allowed to return to Japan that year, but Jenkins and his daughters — Mika, 21, and Brinda, 19 — stayed behind.