Army deserter Charles Jenkins was reunited Tuesday with the mother he left behind, on the soil he forsook 40 years ago when he left his post and slipped across the border into communist North Korea.
A smiling, gray-haired Jenkins stood arm-in-arm with his mother, Pattie, 91, on the front porch of his sister's house here, 30 miles northwest of his home town of Rich Square.
Jenkins's wife and their two daughters joined them as the family faced a throng of reporters who had come to see this former Army sergeant's Cold War saga come full circle.
Asked whether it felt good to be back on U.S. soil after four decades in exile, Jenkins, 65, replied, "Of course." When asked how it felt to be back in his home state, he said, "Very good."
"I feel very happy," Jenkins said. "Thank you very much for coming, especially some of you who came all the way from Japan."
Jenkins's brother-in-law and host, Lee Harrell, asked the news media for privacy and said the family is "reconciling after 40 years of being apart. We just want to reconcile and meet as a family."
Despite talk from some area residents about protesting what they called Jenkins's betrayal of his country, there was no sign of any demonstration.
J.E. Evans, 76, a Korean War veteran, cruised by in his minivan, snapping pictures of the news crews. He said Jenkins earned a life in exile for his actions. "I think that's what he asked for, so that's what he should get," said Evans, whose van was adorned with an American flag and a magnetic yellow ribbon.
Others in town were more willing to accept that Jenkins made a bad decision and has suffered for it. "The thing to do is let bygones be bygones," added Gus Brown, who runs a service station. "The man done an honorable thing. He went to the government . . . and said, 'Here I am' and took whatever punishment they were going to give him."
Jenkins disappeared in January 1965 while on patrol along the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea. He has called his desertion a mistake, one that led to decades of deprivation and hardship in the isolated communist state. Jenkins, then a 25-year-old sergeant, said he drank heavily the night he decided to leave his men and cross the border into North Korea.
During his court-martial, he said he deserted because he was afraid of being sent to Vietnam. He pleaded guilty to desertion and aiding the enemy and was sentenced to 25 days in a U.S. military jail in Japan last year.
Jenkins traveled to Japan last July to be with his wife, Hitomi Soga, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978 but allowed to return home in 2002. The couple met in North Korea and had two daughters, Mika, 21, and Brinda, 19.
Public sympathy for Soga helped make her family's resettlement from North Korea to Japan a national cause. The family has settled in Soga's home town of Mano, on an island called Sado in northwestern Japan.
Jenkins has said he has no plans to move back to the United States and only wanted to see his mother and make one last visit to his homeland.