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SEOUL — Though the subject of a media frenzy in Japan and South Korea, the plight of a former U.S. Army soldier labeled a deserter after spending the past 40 years in North Korea stirs little passion or sympathy among servicemembers in the Pacific.

Charles Jenkins, 64, disappeared during a patrol near the Demilitarized Zone in 1965; the U.S. military says he deserted his post. Family members in the United States say he was kidnapped and brainwashed to stay in North Korea ever since.

On Sunday, the ailing Jenkins arrived in Tokyo with his Japanese wife, who was abducted by North Korea in 1978. His wife was released to Japan two years ago. She was reunited last week with Jenkins in Indonesia, a country with no U.S. extradition treaty. U.S. officials said they are willing to defer prosecuting Jenkins until medical treatment was completed, but will not drop the possibility of charging him as a deserter.

Though the saga has been a nightly feature on Japanese and South Korean news broadcasts, the majority of U.S. servicemembers interviewed Tuesday don’t recognize the name or have only a passing familiarity with the case. But for those who have followed the story, opinion is nearly unanimous: Jenkins should be charged, no matter how much time has passed.

“You can’t just walk off the line and come back a bunch of years later saying, ‘I want to come home now,’” said Sgt. Terri Mills, an 8th Army soldier shopping in the Itaewon district near Yongsan Garrison on Tuesday.

Of the half-dozen soldiers she was with, Mills was the only one who had heard of the case.

“If the military can prove that he’s a deserter, then he should face whatever punishment is given to him. I mean, it’s sad to see how poor his health is, and I’m sure he regrets some of whatever happened. But you can’t start making exceptions for certain cases. You have to treat everyone equally.”

At Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, airmen generally were unsympathetic toward Jenkins’ plight.

“He should be court-martialed. He left his post. Dereliction of duty,” said Senior Airman Jonathan West of the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “I don’t care if he’s old.”

Tech. Sgt. Sean Murray, also of the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said Jenkins should be held accountable, but spared a stiff punishment because of his age and ailing health.

“He is a deserter, so I think we still need at least an explanation. You can’t just walk off your post and decide I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Marine Lance Cpl. John Bilanco of Camp Foster, Okinawa, feels that Jenkins is no good to the United States except for intelligence.

“Jenkins is a defector,” said Bilanco. “Let’s bring this guy to the United States, question him and gather intelligence on North Korea,” said Bilanco. “If he does not cooperate with us, let’s confine him for the rest of his life to a U.S. jail.”

At Yokota Air Base in Japan, some said the complexity of the case makes it hard to determine what’s appropriate.

“He’s probably too old, too crippled to be punished,” said Master Sgt. Robert Martel of the 730th Air Mobility Squadron. “If he did desert, he should do the time. I’m sure that was his concern coming back, and I’m sure he’s willing to accept that.

“But we don’t know all the facts yet. There are reports saying he was kidnapped. Until we know the facts, I’m not sure what should be done, but all that aside, he’s too old to be put in prison. He’ll die there. He’s ailing, and his kids won’t get to see him. What do you do? Is there a middle ground for all of it?”

While Jenkins’ failing health is a consideration, some say authorities remain obligated to address the case.

“You can’t just forget about him,” said Staff Sgt. Alberto Delgado of the 374th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “If you let him go, it sets a precedent. Then what do you do? Forget about all those who fled to Canada, too?”

Tech. Sgt. Alfred Hough, of the 35th Communications Squadron at Misawa, was in the minority opinion. Hough said that while letting Jenkins go sends a bad message to other would-be deserters, he wonders if there shouldn’t be a statute of limitations.

“If he deserted more recently, I’d say pursue it. But hell, how old is he now, 70? To me, it would just be a waste of our time and taxpayer dollars. If you’re willing to hide out in another country for 30 some years and change your citizenship, who wants you as an American? Just let him go.”

Jennifer H. Svan, Vince Little and Mark Rankin contributed to this report.


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