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Deserter in N. Korea May Provide Precedent for Bowe Bergdahl

1:21 PM, Jun 4, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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A U.S. Army soldier goes missing at night from a remote post on the edge of enemy territory. Depressed and anxious, he has expressed doubts about the U.S. mission and disillusionment with the war. He allegedly leaves behind a note recording these doubts. There are some reports that he consumes alcohol before he disappears. He crosses enemy lines and is detained by hostile forces who subsequently publicly announce his conversion to their anti-American cause.

This is not a description of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, recently handed over by the Taliban, though well it might be. It is a description of Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins who went missing along the DMZ border with North Korea in 1965.  The war he objected to was not Afghanistan but Vietnam and he spent not five years in captivity but thirty-nine years.  His North Korean captors, not the Taliban, made use of him during that time for propaganda purposes and made him study North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s juche philosophy, rather than passages from the Koran.  After fifteen years the North Koreans married him off to Hitomi Soga, a 21 year-old Japanese nursing student who had been abducted by North Korean agents. Due to his harsh treatment, which included beatings, and primitive living conditions, Jenkins later reported that he almost immediately regretted his desertion.

Jenkins came to prominence in 2002 when then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to North Korea to hold a summit meeting with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Koizumi not only managed to get Kim Jong Il to admit to the abductions of Japanese citizens but also arranged for a visit of five of them, including Jenkins’s wife, to Japan. Hitomi Soga joined the other four abductees in prudently deciding not to return to North Korea after arriving in Japan. But that left her husband, Charles Robert Jenkins, and two daughters behind in Pyongyang.  While other abductee dependents, through diplomatic negotiations by Tokyo, came to Japan, it was arranged for Jenkins and his daughters in 2004 to travel to Indonesia, which had no extradition treaty with the United States, to reunite with Ms. Soga. America’s ally, Japan, then sought a pardon from the U.S. military for Jenkins’ desertion on humanitarian grounds, given the fact that his spouse was a Japanese citizen. The U.S. military, however, declined the request.  Mr. Jenkins chose to travel to Japan with his wife and daughters and face the legal consequences. On September 11, 2004, dressed in U.S. military uniform, Jenkins reported to a U.S. military base, Camp Zama, to a military police officer. He was then incarcerated until November 3, when he pleaded guilty to desertion and “aiding the enemy.” He was court-martialed, received a dishonorable discharge, forfeited all pay and benefits, was reduced to the rank of E-1 private (the Army’s lowest rank) and was sentenced to thirty days’ confinement – with six off for good behavior. He had spent 14,494 days as a deserter in North Korean captivity.

Charles Robert Jenkins settled quietly with his wife and daughters in his wife’s hometown in rural Japan. Jenkins and his family made a very low key visit to his 91 year-old mother back in his hometown in North Carolina, as she had not seen her son in almost forty years. There were no yellow ribbons or balloons displayed during the visit and no parade down the main street. North Carolinians sensibly did not consider this hometown boy a hero. After the brief visit, Jenkins returned to Japan where he declared his intention to remain for the rest of his life. He was expeditiously granted Japanese permanent residency in 2008.

Those, like National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who argue that Bowe Bergdahl “served with honor and distinction,” should examine the case of Robert Charles Jenkins.  In that case even the request of a key ally of the United States, Japan, for a pardon, due to humanitarian considerations for his Japanese family, did not stop the wheels of military justice from turning. If thirty-nine years in North Korea, a hell on earth, according to the recent  report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into North Korean human rights abuses, does not qualify one for exemption from the statutes of military justice, then how can five years in Afghanistan?  If a 91-year-old mother waiting for almost forty years to see her son does not shield him from the consequences of his actions, then what else should? It seems that Bowe Bergdahl, like Charles Robert Jenkins, should have his day in court for consideration of the charges of desertion which have been leveled against him. All Americans should be equal in the eyes of the law. 

Dennis P. Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins) and a consultant with the Poblete Analysis Group (PAG). 

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