Cowboy Diplomacy

Would you believe the plight of a sick old man is now the cornerstone of an effort to stop desertion in the U.S. Army?

Such is the case of Charles Robert Jenkins. At 65, the North Carolina native is hardly on the active duty roster; he’s currently lying in a hospital bed in Japan undergoing a series of medical tests and hasn’t seen combat in 39 years.

How is it he poses such a danger to the morale of American troops abroad? For the American government, that answer is simple — he’s a deserter and a traitor. And he’s gotten away with it.

Desertion is a hot-button issue with the military right now. With a shortage of available manpower (a 68-year-old doctor from Alabama was recently pulled out of retirement) and an overall sense of malaise coming from forces stationed in the Middle East, those in power are doing what they can to keep boots filled in combat areas. As it is, stop loss orders (legislation preventing soldiers from leaving when their service ends) have forced 50,000 men and women into indefinite servitude.

Only the worst and most treasonous of soldiers take up a mantle of deserter. They’d like the public to believe Jenkins is just that.

Jenkins disappeared in 1965 while patrolling the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. He resurfaced soon after in radio broadcasts and communist propaganda films. The official response to this? He defected to North Korea to avoid military service in Vietnam. The proof lies in the form of several personal letters found among his belongings that have since disappeared.

Relatives, however, insist Jenkins was dedicated to serving his country (he lied about his age and enlisted at 15), and that he was ambushed, brainwashed and forced to aid the enemy. Common sense would seem to bear out this assessment — why would anyone seeking to avoid service in Vietnam defect to North Korea when Canada would do? — but when you’re dealing with the American military, common sense is often in short supply.

Until 2002, the debate was academic. As someone living in North Korea, Jenkins faced no chance of extradition to the United States. He was married; his two daughters study in Pyongyang. It was only when his wife was allowed to return home that the issue of desertion became a problem.

You see, Hitomi Soga was a trainee nurse when she was kidnapped from her home by North Korean spies in 1978. She was forced to teach Japanese language and customs to North Korean spies, but married Jenkins in 1980. Under diplomatic provisions between Japan and North Korea, Soga was allowed to return to Japan a celebrity because of her life story.

Jenkins, however, can’t join her permanently. While North Korea won’t extradite anyone to American soil, Japan can’t afford him that same luxury.

Quite a problem, no? And therein lies the rub. Even though no evidence exists capable of proving Jenkins went AWOL, he is treated with contempt by the American government. Even if he was kidnapped by North Korean operatives, effectively making him a prisoner of war, he faces a court martial if he ever sets foot on American soil.

How ridiculous is that?

Put aside the fact that under the military Code of Conduct, the U.S. Government has an obligation to its prisoners of war. What benefit do the people of the United States gain by indicting and persecuting an old man with a variety of medical ailments?

It turns out that the aims of the government go beyond sending a message to those thinking of turning their backs on their duty. What Jenkins knows might be even more valuable.

After all, Jenkins’ work with the North Korean military (willing or not) makes him a desirable catch. North Korea is considerably closed off to the rest of the world, and its current nuclear proliferation détente with the United States makes any information worth its weight in gold. Even if Jenkins’ data is decades old, his insight into how North Korea trains its operatives could be useful for counterintelligence purposes.

So valuable is Jenkins’ knowledge that officials are contemplating a plea bargain to commute his sentence despite the fact that he’s never been proven to have committed a crime.

Jenkins has traveled to Japan despite concerns over extradition. He and his family are living in the hospital where he is being treated, aware that while the U.S. has no plans to request extradition while he is ill, those plans could change the moment he is discharged.

Japan has repeatedly asked Washington to pardon Jenkins of whatever charges await him should he ever return to the United States. Soga’s plight is national news there, and the Japanese government has made it clear that it is dedicated to reuniting the family of one of its citizens.

In response to such humanitarian aims, Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that “Sgt. Jenkins is, of course, a deserter from the U.S. Army and those charges are still outstanding.”

Outstanding.

I find it refreshingly consistent that the Bush Administration, despite the obvious benefits such an overture would bring to the United States in terms foreign relations karma, chooses to pursue a pointless legal battle that’s older than most of the people currently serving in the armed forces. It’s just the kind of stubborn, pig-headed nonsense I’ve come to expect from the yahoos in the White House.

What possible gain can the United States expect from interrogating and harassing a man who, for all intents and purposes, was forced into this life through the Army’s near steadfast refusal to retrieve its prisoners of war? What tactical advantage can a former slave give to the government through intimidation?

Here’s an idea: instead of giving an old man a stroke from the tension derived from the constant worry of being shipped back to the place of his birth, why not see the obvious human element in all this, exonerate him and then ask if he’d be interested in sharing what he knows?

It’s been forty years. Nothing that happened back in 1965 is worth the destruction of an old American soldier who just wants to be with his loved ones and feel safe. I know current policy is to deny those currently serving such freedoms, but throw the old guy a bone.

If for nothing else, it’s good for public relations.