This item caught my eye late last week. According to most accounts, the US Army believes that he deserted his post, rather than being captured or kidnapped, even though his wife was herself kidnapped from Japan and no one questions that. Set against this are the personal recollections of those who knew him and that he was a sergeant with ten years' service. One would think he would have the knowledge and experience to understand the consequences of taking a long hike north.
This BBC account has a few more background details. The Army alleges Jenkins left notes stating, or hinting at, an intention to defect to NK. They've since lost the notes. Jenkins' North Carolina family says there were no notes to begin with, and that the boy and man they knew was proud of his service. Jenkins himself has had very little to say; as the BBC article points out, he would not be free to speak if what he said differs from the official statements of the NK government.
Lynn O’Shea, New York state director of the nonprofit National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen, said she believes labeling Jenkins a deserter may be a rush to judgment.
“We’re all not that sure he did desert,” she said in a telephone interview with Stars and Stripes.
“His record was very good; he was a sergeant, and had just returned from a month of leave in the States,” she said. “If he was thinking of going AWOL, he would have had better places to go.”
Jenkins had one disciplinary report about 10 months prior to his disappearance, an infraction, O’Shea says, “but not a major incident because he held his rank, so it was probably not a critical incident.”
Military officials acknowledged an infraction on Jenkins’ record but would not specify.
With North Korea’s recent admission of kidnapping of Japanese citizens, O’Shea believes the Jenkins issue remains a question mark.
“Until somebody gets face to face with him where he can speak freely,” she said, “I don’t think anybody will ever really know the truth whether Jenkins walked across the border or was kidnapped.”
The Stars & Stripes followed up in November of the same year with an interview with a former soldier who was in Jenkins' company at the time of his disappearance. Nobuharu Kumada recalls Jenkins as a quiet, serious, non-complainer:
Kumada, who ultimately received an honorable discharge on March 28, 1968, after attaining the rank of Spec. 4, said it is “unthinkable” that Jenkins defected.
“He never complained about military life and did not say anything critical about the war in Vietnam,” he said.
The Army has been steadfast in their assertions since NK radio at the time broadcast their version of events: that Jenkins defected, was happy to be in paradise. Jenkins himself read the statements, and went on to read more, as well as appear in propaganda films. However, there's a lot more known now about how kidnapped persons can be made to accept their situations, especially if no effort's made to rescue them.
Furthermore, kidnapping was a common NK practice at the time:
Various POW advocates, among them the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America's Missing Servicemen, maintain that the Army never adequately investigated the possibility that Jenkins had been abducted.
The North Koreans at the time were known to be prolific kidnappers of South Koreans, Japanese and anybody else they thought could be of use. A declassified Army document dated 1962 and obtained by the National Alliance tells of a North Korean agent captured at the DMZ who admitted under interrogation that he was trying to kidnap U.S. servicemen.
Robert Egan, a New Jersey businessman and POW activist who has frequently visited North Korea, says that the U.S. military covered up Jenkins' abduction because it didn't want to raise tensions with North Korea. "They couldn't afford to have a problem on the DMZ at the height of the Vietnam War," Egan said.
Either way, it's been forty years. Why not issue a dishonourable discharge or even a pardon and close the case? Especially since doing so would help Japan out of a sticky situation:
Mr. Jenkins's fate remains uncertain. Japan's top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, said Tokyo recently repeated its request for the United States not to push for his extradition.
"But Washington's response has been rather severe," he said at a news conference in Tokyo. "There's still a possibility that the situation could change, but I can't comment on that now."
What no one's said is, if he were planning to defect, when would he have had opportunity to make arrangements with NK agents? He, along with his platoon, were armed on patrol; what happened to his weapons and ammo? If he were abducted, they would have been taken by NK, but if (as he said on the radio) he defected on his own, surely he would have stashed them somewhere in the DMZ rather than attempt to walk into North Korea under arms.
I don't know any more than anyone else about what happened that night when he broke off from his platoon to check out a noise. It just seems to me that, out of all that's been reported, no one has come up with a reason why Jenkins would choose to defect, given his record and prospects. Taken together with NK's recent admission that abductions were part and parcel of their normal conduct, and I suspect that Jenkins was abducted, in either a chance encounter with NK operatives or as the result of a planned operation. Even if he did walk all on his own initiative, I think it's time to let the water out from under the bridge.