TOKYO – The United States may delay its request for Japan to hand over Charles Jenkins (search), U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker said Saturday, clearing the way for the accused U.S. Army deserter to seek medical treatment in Tokyo.
Baker's remarks, made after he met with Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi (search) on Saturday, were the first sign of a tentative accord between Washington and Tokyo over the fate of Jenkins, who allegedly defected to North Korea (news - web sites) four decades ago.
"Foreign Minister Kawaguchi told me that Sgt. Jenkins' medical condition is serious and asked that the United States consider the humanitarian aspects of this case," Baker said in a statement faxed by the U.S. Embassy.
"I acknowledged to Foreign Minister Kawaguchi that the U.S. government is sympathetic to his health condition and that Sgt. Jenkins' medical condition may delay our request for his transfer to U.S. custody."
Jenkins, 64, is scheduled to be whisked to a Tokyo university hospital as soon as he arrives from Indonesia on Sunday evening with his Japanese wife and their two North Korean-born daughters, a Cabinet Office spokesman said Saturday.
Jenkins, who disappeared while on patrol in 1965 and who later read anti-U.S. propaganda broadcasts and appeared in communist films, is wanted in the United States on four charges, including desertion. He could face life in prison if convicted. U.S. officials previously had said the administration would seek custody of Jenkins, despite Tokyo's efforts to win clemency for him.
For the past week, Jenkins, his wife Hitomi Soga and their children have been in a Jakarta hotel following an emotional reunion. Soga, a Japanese woman who was abducted by North Korean spies in 1978, had been allowed to return to Japan two years ago, but left her family behind in the North.
The family will be sheltered from the media once they are in Tokyo, the Cabinet Office spokesman said on condition of anonymity.
Baker said U.S. Embassy officials had no plans to meet Jenkins "in the immediate future."
Japanese doctors recommended Jenkins be sent to Japan for further care. Hosoda said Jenkins is suffering from complications following abdominal surgery in North Korea. He's said Jenkins may require another operation.
A status of forces agreement governs the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan. Boucher said he wouldn't speculate on how the agreement would be legally interpreted, but Jenkins apparently has never been processed out of the military and could face court-martial.
In a bizarre twist, Jenkins' chances of going free appeared to get a boost after Japanese immigration authorities said Friday they had detained former world chess champion Bobby Fischer (search).
Fischer has been wanted by U.S. authorities for attending a 1992 chess match in the former Yugoslavia in violation of international sanctions. He was caught earlier this week as he attempted to leave Japan for the Philippines using an invalid U.S. passport.
Though Tokyo hasn't said what will happen to Fischer, handing him over could give Japan more leverage in the Jenkins case.