Army Deserter Starts Anew In 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 spent two years in anguish, not knowing if they would be reunited.

A diplomatic offensive launched by Tokyo finally won the release of Jenkins and their two daughters earlier this year. The former sergeant later turned himself into the U.S. military.

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.

The family, meanwhile, appeared eager to adjust to their new lives in Sado.

Jenkins met his father-in-law for the first time, paying him a visit at the hospital and telling him to get well so they could go fishing.

Daughters Mika, 21, and Brinda, 19, read brief statements, saying they were happy to be in Sado and promising to study Japanese.

Soga said her daughters, who earlier made a brief visit to Sado, had already taken to the island.

Niigata University, the local college, has said it would consider ways to accommodate Mika and Brinda if they asked to enroll. Soga said she would like her daughters to begin formal studies.

Near the center of town, a one-story house with dark wood shingles awaited the family, a Christmas wreath hanging on the front door. Tomato vines and flowers lined the yard and stuffed animals sat in the front window of the home, where Soga has lived for more than a year in hopes her family would join her.

Still, Soga said adjusting after living in one of the world's most hermetic countries would take time.

"Right now, among the feelings of happiness and relief, I also feel some anxiety about the life ahead," she said.

She said her joy was shadowed by the belief that other Japanese abduction victims, including her mother, remain in North Korea. Soga and her mother vanished together while headed to a store on Aug. 12, 1978, but North Korea denies kidnapping the mother.

"I'm relieved to see them reunited. The next step is moving on. That could be the hard part," said Akiko Izumi, a barber shop owner and longtime family acquaintance.

By Natalie Obiko Pearson