SADO, Japan – Putting the four decades he spent as a U.S. Army deserter in North Korea behind him, Charles Jenkins was greeted Tuesday by cheering crowds in his wife’s hometown on this wind-swept Japanese island. “Today is the first day of the last chapter of my life,” he tearfully declared.
“I saw the beauty and the quiet of this island many times before in my mind, long before today,” the North Carolina native said, choking back sobs. “It is my hope to spend these last days of my life here, in this place, quietly.”
Earlier Tuesday, Jenkins, 64, left U.S. Camp Zama, where he served a one-month prison term for abandoning his Army post in 1965 to cross over to the communist North to avoid perilous duty on the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam.
With his wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two daughters, Jenkins traveled by bus and ferry to Sado, a small island in the Sea of Japan about 180 miles northwest of Tokyo.
Well-wishers gathered in a chilling rain at City Hall to call out “Welcome home!” as officials presented them with bouquets of flowers amid a media-throng.
The family’s plight has been closely followed in Japan, where Soga has won an outpouring of public sympathy.
Soga met and married Jenkins in North Korea, after northern agents kidnapped her as a 19-year-old in 1978. The spies had plied this region for people who could teach Japanese language and culture. The region is separated by less than 625 miles from the communist country at some points and close enough to hear its radio broadcasts.
Soga returned home to Japan in 2002 after Pyongyang acknowledged having kidnapped her and 12 other Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, but she left her family behind.
Soga said she despaired at times and considered returning to North Korea. What stopped her was one of her strongest wishes since arriving in Japan – to get her husband out and reunite him with his aging mother in North Carolina.
“I don’t know when it will be, but I promise that there will come a day when we will meet. Until that day, I would like his mother to remain healthy,” Soga said.