TOKYO As the legal drama unfolds soon in the desertion trial of Charles Robert Jenkins, wanted by the U.S. Army for abandoning his patrol, close attention will be paid to his testimony for possible secrets into North Korea the place where Jenkins made his home for nearly 40 years.
Of particular concern to Japan will be the fates of Japanese abductees who were spirited away to Pyongyang during the Cold War.
Jenkins, 64, is the husband of Japanese national, Hitomi Soga, who was abducted by North Korea along with more than a dozen others in the 1970s. They have two daughters born in North Korea.
For years, Pyongyang had dismissed the abductions as fictional, part of a smear campaign engineered by South Korea’s Agency for National Security Planning.
But in September 2002, as part of efforts to normalize relations with Japan, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il confessed that overzealous elements of his military had in fact snatched 12 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and ’80s. (The tally was later raised to 13.)
He added that the kidnappers had acted without instruction from above and had been punished.
But Kim may not have revealed the whole story.
"The trial of Jenkins is important for the families of the abductees still in North Korea because they are so desperate for more information on their loved ones," Shoji Sugino, spokesperson for the Council of the Association to Rescue Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, told IPS.
"There is the hope that Jenkins will reveal more on Japanese left in North Korea and this information will be shared with the Japanese government, which in turn will put pressure on North Korea," added Sugino.
What makes Jenkins testimony important is that his wife has also some important information.
Soga had been kidnapped by North Korean agents in Japan in 1978 in order to help train North Korean spies in Japanese language and customs.
In October 2002, the Japanese government arranged for Soga, and four other kidnap victims, to visit their home country for the first time since their abduction, after Pyongyang admitted it was holding them.
But Tokyo never allowed the five to return, and went on to campaign for their families to join them.
This May, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to Pyongyang to secure the handover of the relatives seven children and a husband of the five Japanese. Jenkins was the husband, but he feared arrested arrest by Tokyo on behalf of the United States and stayed behind with the couple’s two daughters.
North Korea, however, allowed Jenkins and his daughters to travel to Indonesia which does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. On July 9, the family was reunited in Jakarta.
Jenkins then traveled to Japan, where, after several weeks in a hospital, he said he was ready to face the charges against him.
Last week, he turned himself in to the U.S. Army at Camp Zama close to Tokyo. He is reported to be seeking a plea bargain that would include a dishonorable discharge from the military and avoid imprisonment under U.S. military laws for defecting.
But analysts are already expecting the North Koreans to turn the screws on the remaining Japanese abductees should Jenkins reveal too much to Japan and the U.S.
"Jenkins is now ready to reveal to the U.S. and Japan his deep knowledge on North Korea, where he taught at prestigious institutes. Pyongyang is definitely very angry at how things are turning out and will in turn clamp down on the other abducted Japanese," Pyong Jin-Il, editor of the Korea Report, told IPS.
Prof. Maso Okonogi, an expert on North Korea at Keio University, also was of the same opinion as Pyong.
"The escape of Jenkins alone will harden North Korea’s stance on the Japanese abductees. So if he speaks more, this should be used to pressure North Korea," he said in an interview.
Much of the last 40 years of Charles Jenkins’ life is still a mystery.
According to the U.S. government, Jenkins, an army sergeant, was patrolling the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea when he disappeared on the morning of Jan. 5, 1965.
But other than his brief appearance in a North Korean propaganda film, little else is known about Jenkins.
The drama for Jenkins’ family is far from over and the entire Japanese nation is anxiously waiting to see if there is a happy ending to this episode.
"Everybody in Japan hopes the Jenkins saga will end quickly with the United States forgiving the elderly solider and closing the case," said Pyong. "That would ease the tense situation that confronts Japan now."
For the past two years, the nation has followed Soga’s progress as she gradually got used to life again in modern Japan transforming herself from the woman wearing a gray suit with Kim Jong-Il’s badge to a social worker dressed in jeans.
"Jenkins is Soga’s husband, so it is important that the family live together," said 57-year-old Kanako Saito, a homemaker.
According to Kim Jun-shuk, a Korean professor at Tokyo University, if the United States allows Jenkins to live in Japan with his family that will send a positive message to the Japanese and South Korean public.
"It indicates that there is still some compassion left [on the part of the U.S.]," he told IPS.