Daily Archives: 3 November 2004

Rip Van Winkle Jenkins Sentenced in Japan

The New York Times reports on the low-key trial and sentencing of a U.S. Army deserter, flying beneath all the flak of the U.S. elections.

CAMP ZAMA, Japan, Nov. 3 – Charles Robert Jenkins, the Army sergeant who left his soldiers and walked into North Korea in 1965 to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, received a light sentence Wednesday after pleading guilty in a court-martial here to desertion and aiding the enemy.

After hearing bleak testimony about his harsh life in North Korea, an Army judge seemed to accept a defense lawyer’s argument that Sergeant Jenkins, 64, had “already suffered 40 years of confinement.” The judge, Col. Denise Vowell, then demoted him to private, stripped him of four decades of back pay and benefits, and gave him a dishonorable discharge and a 30-day jail sentence.

The prosecutor, Capt. Seth Cohen, had called for a tougher sentence, evoking, in a veiled way, the need for military discipline while American soldiers are fighting in Iraq. Referring to noncommissioned officers like Sergeant Jenkins, he said, “We can’t have soldiers going into the field fearing that their N.C.O.’s will abandon them, especially given the state of the world today.”

But the trial and sentencing seemed to reflect American political needs to mollify Japanese public opinion, which has been moved by the drama of the American defector from North Carolina and his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga Jenkins, whom he met in North Korea a few years after North Korean agents had kidnapped her from a Japanese island in 1978.

Apparently to minimize American media attention, the one-day military trial took place as votes were being counted in the American presidential election.

I think this whole affair has been handled with an admirable mixture of punctiliousness and compassion.

Deprived of books, Sergeant Jenkins said he had so treasured a banned copy of the historical novel “Shogun” that he read it 20 times.

I’d say that’s punishment enough (with its hotel bar-influenced mediaeval Japanese). But perhaps he could be further sentenced to his wife’s hometown on Sado Island, off Niigata. “It is one of Japan’s largest minor islands and served as an exile place for important figures since mediaeval times.”

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