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Family members of a U.S. soldier in North Korea have launched a signature-collecting campaign in a bid to bring more publicity to the plight of Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins and other American GIs believed to be living in the secretive state.

Army officials say Jenkins, 62, of Rich Square, N.C., defected to the North on Jan. 5, 1965, while leading a four-man patrol near the Demilitarized Zone. He was 24 at the time. A Jan. 19, 1965, United Press International story published in Stars and Stripes cited 8th Army officials in South Korea as saying a letter found in his barracks was written by Jenkins to his mother, Pattie Casper, now 90 and in frail health in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

It read: “I am sorry for the trouble I will cause you. I know what I have to do I am going to North Korea. I hope Dan [Jenkins’ stepfather] gets out of the hospital. Tell family I love them very much. Love, Charles.”

His family contests the existence of the letter and told Stripes no copy was provided in a recent bunch of documents they requested. A Pentagon spokesman told Stripes in June that the Army withheld the letter because Jenkins is listed as a deserter on the Army’s personnel rolls and still potentially could face charges.

“If Sgt. Jenkins were to come under U.S. control and a trial were to take place, the letter and notes could be used as evidence,” said Maj. Steve Stover at the Pentagon. “Because court-martial charges sworn against Sgt. Jenkins in 1996 remain pending, it would be inappropriate to comment further on status of evidence related to this case.”

Jenkins’ name entered the spotlight in 2002 when a group of North-abducted Japanese citizens returned to Japan. Among them was Jenkins’ wife, Hitomi Soga. She and her mother were abducted in 1978 from Sado Island in the Sea of Japan.

“There hasn’t been enough publicity into my uncle’s situation and of other Americans living in North Korea,” Jenkins’ nephew, James Hyman, said from his home in Dallas, N.C. “We hope to collect as many signatures as we can.”

He said collected signatures on a petition, and from the Internet, will be sent to President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

The senator introduced legislation last year to allow North Korean refugees to apply for refugee status or asylum.

Earlier this year in Washington, Brownback met with the Japanese families of the victims as part of his effort to “address the ongoing abuse of human rights by North Korea.”

Hyman said he feels not enough has been said about soldiers now living in North Korea.

“We want the American people involved in what’s going on; they have no clue into the plight of my uncle and what has gone on in the past,” he said. He added the effort also will show support for other Americans still believed to be in North Korea.

“The U.S. government has done nothing to get them back,” he said.

Hyman said Wednesday he had “no idea” how many signatures have been received as of yet. A cousin in charge of the effort has not yet tallied early returns, he said.

Soga, 44, read about the effort seeking signatures and expressed her gratitude to Americans who support her 62-year-old husband, sources for Soga’s family told the Yomiuri Shimbun. Stripes was unable to contact Soga for comment.

Since his disappearance, however, the U.S. government has regarded him as a deserter. Hyman, 41, disagrees, saying that North Korea had not only kidnapped Japanese citizens, but had taken South Korean soldiers as well and held them prisoner.

He said that judging from the circumstances of his uncle’s disappearance, he believes it was likely Jenkins was an abductee. The petition included details behind Jenkins’ disappearance and also mentioned the issue of Japanese residents abducted by North Korea.

On the Web site maintained by the family, Hyman says his uncle has been found guilty without a trial. Hyman and other supporters will begin collecting signatures through the Web site at www.charlesrobertjenkins.org.

On the site, they claim that Jenkins may have been kidnapped by North Korean agents and provide information supporting that claim.

Jenkins is a North Korean citizen now, but Defense Department officials say the United States still has jurisdiction over him.

The statute of limitations affecting him has been “tolled,” or put on hold during his unauthorized absence, Army officials have said.

The sensitive issue of a pardon for Jenkins has come up from time to time from the Japanese government and from Jenkins’ wife.

Earlier this month, Soga met in Tokyo with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker asking for assistance with a pardon so her husband and daughters could join her in Japan. Baker promised only to pass that request to Washington.

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