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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 July, 2004, 18:46 GMT 19:46 UK
Japan gripped by Cold War love story

By Jonathan Head
BBC correspondent in Tokyo

As he walked off the chartered Japanese airliner that had carried him from Indonesia, Charles Jenkins looked a great deal older than his 64 years.

Charles Jenkins
Jenkins has taken the decision to risk arrest
Aided by the arm of his wife, Hitomi Soga, and a walking stick, he stumbled to the bus waiting to whisk him off to the hospital in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, where he will receive treatment for his various ailments.

It is not clear exactly what is wrong with him - but in an interview given nearly two years ago in a Pyongyang hospital, Mr Jenkins said he had heart and kidney problems.

His nine days in a five-star hotel in Jakarta with his family do not seem to have helped his fragile health.

Nevertheless, those shaky first steps in Japan, broadcast live on every television station here, may play to his advantage.

The United States still insists it will ask Japan to hand Mr Jenkins over to face charges of desertion, but not while he needs care in hospital.

Judging by his appearance as he got off the plane, he will need that care for weeks, if not months.

What happens after that depends on how determined the US is to punish a man it still views as an active duty soldier, who deserted his post 39 years ago and went over to the enemy.

Profound shock

Under the agreement which allows American forces to be based in Japan, the Japanese authorities would have to hand Mr Jenkins over to the US military if asked to.

At a time when the morale and reputation of the US armed forces are being tested by operations in Iraq, it would be awkward for the Bush administration simply to drop the very serious charges against him.

Even people in his home town of Rich Square in North Carolina do not believe the one-time army sergeant should be let off the hook - although his nephew James Hymen, who is in Japan to meet him, told the BBC the military charges were baseless, because letters Mr Jenkins is alleged to have written admitting his defection to North Korea have now disappeared.

Hitomi Soga and Charles Jenkins embracing in Jakarta on 9 July 2004
The couple's emotional embrace showed the strength of their bond
The view from Japan, though, is very different.

It is hard to overstate the sense of profound shock that this insular and prosperous country experienced when it discovered that dozens of its citizens had been kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Egged on by intense media coverage, there is a strong public appetite to see all the surviving abductees return to Japan, and for them to live as happily as possible to make up for the years of suffering inside North Korea.

Hitomi Soga was one of those abductees. A 19-year-old nurse at the time, in 1978 she was taken from her home island of Sado off the west coast of Japan with her mother, who has not been seen since.

In 1980, she married Charles Jenkins, who was helping teach her English.

Happy ending?

It was only in October 2002, after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ground-breaking visit to Pyongyang secured the release of Ms Soga and seven other abductees, that her family discovered what had happened to her.

No-one who witnessed her emotional embrace of Mr Jenkins when they were reunited in Jakarta can doubt the enormous bond between the two.

Their two daughters, Mika and Belinda, have looked overwhelmed by the events of the past two weeks and will need a lot of time and help to adjust to life in Japan.

Little thought has been given by the Japanese media to the possibility that they may have been happy in North Korea. But their mother is clearly happy to be living back here.

And their father, who cuts a rather tragic figure, has taken the courageous decision to risk arrest and bring his family together in a country which is entirely new to three of them.

Given the public mood here, the US is likely to tread carefully.

All the talk in Japan is of a possible deal, by which Mr Jenkins tells the US authorities everything he learned during his long years in North Korea in return for his freedom, or perhaps a token sentence.

His is a bizarre, Cold War love story, to which the Japanese people desperately want to see a happy ending.

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