Army deserter Jenkins leaves Camp Zama for island home
U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins left Camp Zama on Tuesday morning and was greeted by a cheering crowd Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, Japan, with his wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two North Korean-born daughters.
The 64-year-old former Army sergeant wrapped up outprocessing requirements and his request for voluntary excess leave was approved by military officials, according to a U.S. Army Japan news release.
Jenkins pleaded guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy during a Nov. 3 court-martial at Zama. He testified he abandoned his South Korea post in 1965 and defected to North Korea, where he remained for about 39 years.
He was sentenced to six months in a military jail, given a dishonorable discharge, reduced in rank to private and ordered to forfeit all pay and allowances. But in a pretrial agreement, Jenkins served just 25 days of a monthlong prison term at the Yokosuka Naval Base confinement center. He was released Nov. 27 and reunited with his family at Camp Zama.
“While Jenkins remains on active duty until his mandatory automatic appeal process through the Army’s legal system is completed, he will receive no military pay, and is not obligated to report for duty while in voluntary excess leave status,” the release stated.
On Tuesday, the Jenkins family arrived Soga’s hometown of Sado Island in northwest Japan, where they intend to settle, Kyodo News reported.
“Today is the first day of the last chapter of my life,” Jenkins told a news conference in Sado. “It is here on the island of Sado in Japan that I will hopefully live my remaining days with my wife and my children. ... This island is as beautiful as she described.”
“I have made peace with the American Army and I have been shown great mercy and compassion,” he said, sniffling and brushing away tears.
A native of Rich Square, N.C., Jenkins abandoned his South Korea post on Jan. 5, 1965, to avoid hazardous combat duty in Vietnam, he told Col. Denise Vowell, the military judge from Arlington, Va., brought in for last month’s court-martial. Once across the Demilitarized Zone, he hoped to reach the Soviet Embassy there and ultimately be returned to the United States.
Asked by Vowell if walking away from his post was a conscious choice on his part, Jenkins said, “I knew what I was doing but it was a mistake. I didn’t know North Korea was gonna keep me.”
Jenkins later was forced to teach English to North Korean officer cadets being trained as spies, he said.
During the court-martial, Army Capt. James Culp, his defense lawyer from South Korea, said Jenkins “suffered for 40 years under horrible, repressive conditions” in the reclusive communist nation.
“They said they saved that for the battlefield,” Jenkins wrote.
In 1978, Soga was abducted from her Japanese hometown by North Korean agents. They wanted her to teach the Japanese language and customs to potential spies, Jenkins testified. She and Jenkins married two years later.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.