WELDON, N.C. – On the eve of his return to the remote Japanese exile island that he now calls home, U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins (search) apologized for his more than 40-year-old decision to abandon his post for life in North Korea (search).
Jenkins, who was expected to leave his boyhood home of North Carolina early Tuesday morning for an afternoon flight from Dulles International Airport to Tokyo (search), said his decision to defect to communist North Korea in 1965 was wrong.
"I let my soldiers down. I let the U.S. Army down. I let the government down, and I made it very difficult for my family in the United States to live," Jenkins said.
Speaking at his sister's home in Weldon, the 65-year-old Jenkins said he lived in harsh conditions in North Korea. While there, he thought he would never again see his mother, Pattie. They were reunited last week.
Jenkins was a 24-year-old sergeant with the U.S. Army's 1st Calvary Division when he left the squad he was leading on patrol in the Demilitarized Zone and walked into North Korea on July 5, 1965.
While he appeared in North Korean propaganda films and taught English, Jenkins said North Korean agents were never able to break him and he was never brainwashed. On Monday, he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "an evil man."
"He only believes in one thing — his own personal luxury life," he said.
Jenkins remained in North Korea after his Japanese-born wife, who had been kidnapped from Japan in 1978, returned to her home country in 2002. The couple was reunited last year in Japan, where he was court-martialed and served 25 days in a U.S. military jail.
Jenkins' wife, Hitomi Soga, called for more attention in the United States and Japan to the plight of Japanese abductees she said remain in North Korea.
"There are still people in North Korea who were abducted, and I want more people from Japan and America to pay attention and help solve this problem," Soga said through an interpreter.
The couple — along with their two daughters, who accompanied them on their visit to North Carolina — have no plans to move permanently back to the United States. Jenkins has said the primary purpose of his weeklong trip was to visit his ailing mother and make a final visit to his homeland.
"He's certainly not a hero. He didn't get a parade coming home," Michael Cooke, of Raleigh, a boyhood friend and Vietnam veteran, said Monday. "What he did was a despicable thing."
But Cooke said he spent more than two hours Friday night catching up with Jenkins, his family and three other old friends from their days as boys in Rich Square, a town about 30 miles southeast of Weldon.
Cooke brought along old photos and a copy of the 1954 Rich Square telephone book to help remember names long forgotten.
They spent no time asking Jenkins why he deserted, or about how he lived for decades in one of the world's most isolated countries.
"We didn't get into any of that heavy stuff," Cooke said. "We didn't get an apology."
The most telling moment of their reunion, Cooke said, was seeing the joy in Jenkins' 91-year-old mother's eyes. "Ms. Jenkins seemed as happy as she could be to have her son home," he said.
When asked Monday about reuniting with his mother, Jenkins became emotional.
"It's very difficult to express, to put into words, how I feel," he said. "I didn't feel I would ever see her again."