CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins pleaded guilty today to deserting the U.S. Army in 1965 and aiding the enemy, saying that he wanted to avoid hazardous duty on the Korean peninsula and Vietnam.
The plea was apparently part of a bargain with U.S. military officials to win the frail 64-year-old a lesser sentence. The North Carolina native vanished from his post and lived in North Korea for 39 years before coming to Japan this year.
“I walked away from my squad … for the purpose of going to North Korea,” Jenkins told the court, adding that he had planned his desertion for 10 days and had tied a white T-shirt to his rifle to signal his surrender.
Jenkins also pleaded guilty to aiding the enemy by teaching North Koreans English in the 1980s. He denied that he advocated the overthrow of the United States in propaganda broadcasts, and pleaded innocent to charges of making disloyal statements.
Jenkins theoretically faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, though most deserters end up with much lighter punishment. Desertion carries a death penalty only when committed during wartime. The last U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion was Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who was shot by a firing squad from his own unit in the closing months of World War II.
Jenkins turned himself in to U.S. military authorities on Sept. 11, two months after he left Pyongyang to seek medical treatment in Japan.
In full uniform for the court-martial, the American had been widely expected to plead guilty to one or more of the charges. Japan has been urging the U.S. government to be lenient so Jenkins can live in Japan with his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two daughters.
The guilty pleas were “conditional,” which means he and his lawyers made modifications in the charges against him, presumably to lessen their severity.
Jenkins told the court that he had been depressed and drinking heavily before his desertion. He planned to ask the North Koreans to send him to the Soviet Union, where he would turn himself in to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and return to the United States.
The soldier said he was driven to desert by fear of being assigned to daytime patrols along the DMZ, because he would be visible to the enemy.
He also said he wanted to avoid the then-expanding U.S. military effort in Vietnam.
“I’d never been to the jungle before,” he said. “I was afraid for myself and I was also afraid for the people I’d have to lead.”
The court-martial brings to a close one of the Army’s longest desertion sagas. Though Army deserters from the 1940s are still being sought, no deserter or desertion suspect has surrendered after as long an absence as Jenkins.
Raised in poverty, the Rich Square, N.C., native joined the Army as a teenager, received a Good Conduct Award after his first tour of duty in South Korea in 1961 and rose to the rank of sergeant.
But according to the Army, he deserted his unit along the Demilitarized Zone on Jan. 5, 1965. While in North Korea, he participated in propaganda broadcasts, played an American villain in at least one anti-U.S. movie, and is believed to have taught English at a school for espionage agents.
The Pentagon confirmed in the mid-1980s that Jenkins and three other suspected American deserters were living in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.
But Jenkins’ situation became the focus of intense international negotiations two years ago, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il acknowledged that his wife, Hitomi Soga, was abducted by spies in 1978 and taken to North Korea against her will. She married Jenkins, nearly 20 years her senior, in 1980.
Kim’s confession, in an unprecedented summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, ended decades of denial and opened the way for Soga and four other abductees to return to Japan for an emotional homecoming.
It created a crisis for Jenkins, however.
Aware that he might be turned over to the U.S. Army, Jenkins and his daughters – Mika, 21, and Brinda, 19 – stayed behind.
Soga remained, but Koizumi traveled to the North again earlier this year to make a personal plea for Jenkins to join her in Japan or a neutral third country. Though reluctant, Jenkins agreed to a meeting in Indonesia in July.
Less than two weeks later, the family was flown to Tokyo, where Jenkins was hospitalized for an abdominal disorder. Out of deference to Japanese public opinion, U.S. military officials allowed Jenkins to turn himself in, rather than be arrested.