Charles Robert Jenkins was a 24-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from rural North Carolina when he disappeared from his unit while on night patrol along the Korean Peninsula's Demilitarized Zone in the winter of 1965. He crossed into North Korea and has lived there ever since.
On Friday, Jenkins left that isolated country for the first known time in 39 years, flying to the Indonesian capital with his two daughters for a reunion with his Japanese wife.
Jenkins and his daughters arrived on a plane chartered by the Japanese government, which took them in a matter of hours from economically stagnant, Stalinist North Korea to the middle of Friday night rush hour in one of Southeast Asia's most electric, chaotic capitals. Despite a police escort, Jenkins's motorcade was marooned in traffic for about two hours, delaying his arrival at the downtown luxury hotel that will be his home for an undetermined time while he and his wife resolve their future.
Jenkins, 64, arrived at Jakarta's InterContinental Hotel looking frail but dapper in a gray double-breasted suit and well-shined black shoes. A pin with the likeness of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, adorned his lapel. His once fair hair was thin and graying, combed back to a wave. Asked by reporters how he felt, he said only, "Very happy."
He declined further comment and then, waving a bouquet of flowers, left the hotel's black marble lobby and headed upstairs with his wife and daughters Mika, 21, and Belinda, 18, to their two-bedroom suite for a room-service dinner.
Jenkins married his wife, Hitomi Soga, in 1978 after she was abducted by North Korean agents and smuggled to the capital, Pyongyang. Soga returned to Japan in October 2002, leaving behind Jenkins and her daughters, after North Korea acknowledged kidnapping her and several other young Japanese to help train spies.
Soga has said in recent weeks she wanted her family to settle in Japan. But Jenkins has expressed fear that Japan might extradite him to the United States to face military desertion charges, according to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who met with him in Pyongyang two months ago.
The Japanese government arranged for the family reunion, which took place not far from the North Korean Embassy in Jakarta. Indonesia does not have an extradition treaty with the United States and has warm relations with North Korea dating to the time of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno.
Jenkins's daughters, dressed in matching white shirts, black skirts and sandals, with their hair tied back in ponytails, seemed dazed by the flashing cameras and crush of reporters, including more than 200 journalists who rushed from Japan for the occasion. Soga, 45, who arrived Thursday to a similar welcome, was composed, waving to scores of spectators.
"We hope this reunion will bridge the gap after 21 months apart," Japan's special envoy, Akitaka Saiki, said in Pyongyang before the flight in remarks carried by Japan's NHK television network. "Thanks to Indonesia's help, we think they will have some meaningful time together."
The Jenkins case is a politically sensitive one for the U.S. government, which wants to support Koizumi's efforts to normalize relations with North Korea. Koizumi's government had engineered the arrival of Jenkins two days before crucial parliamentary elections. But U.S. officials have expressed objections to pardoning the alleged Army deserter, who has appeared in at least one North Korean propaganda film playing an American spy.
The issue has been mentioned in recent talks held separately by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice with Japanese officials. A State Department official in Washington said this week that the reunion was "a matter between the Japanese government, the Indonesian government and North Korea." But the official noted that Jenkins remained accused of "extremely serious offenses."
The Defense Department said that Jenkins was one of six members of the U.S. military who defected to North Korea between 1962 and 1982.
Special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto and Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo contributed to this report.