Sat, 10 Jul 2004

In from the cold?

Jakarta, with its notorious traffic snarls, pollution and tangled red tape, may not be the most likely place in the world for a family drama, tinged with international intrigue, to meet with a happy ending.

But yesterday, the arrival in the Indonesian capital of American-born Charles Robert Jenkins, 64, put an end to nearly two years of separation between him and his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, 45, and their two daughters, Mika, 21, and Belinda, 19, and awoke memories of a real-life saga that goes back almost half a century to the Cold War era.

In 1965, Jenkins, then a 24-year-old American soldier stationed in Korea, disappeared. He was abducted, as he maintains, by North Korean agents while on patrol along the demilitarized zone separating the North from the South. He was brainwashed, he says, and told to help the North Koreans with a variety of tasks, including making films for propaganda.

Washington, however, maintains that he deserted.

Soga's life story is even more dramatic. In 1978, when she was only 19 years old, she was on a trip to Sado Island in her native Japan when she was abducted by North Korean agents. From there, she was taken to Pyongyang and held captive to teach North Korean agents Japanese language and customs. It was there that she met and married Jenkins.

In 2002, while Jenkins was still living a more or less pampered live in Pyongyang, Soga's forced stay in the North Korean capital came to an unexpected end when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi successfully negotiated the release and repatriation of Soga and four other Japanese abductees from North Korea.

Jenkins and his two daughters, however, chose to remain, fearing his arrest in Japan and consequent extradition to the U.S. to be tried as a deserter.

Aside from the Jenkins-Soga family history, another interesting angle to yesterday's reunion in Jakarta is the active role Japanese authorities seem to be playing in the family's reunion.

Hitomi Soga arrived in Jakarta on Thursday on a Japan Airlines flight and was met by officials of the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta at the airport, from where she was escorted by Indonesian police to her hotel. The embassy even issued a circular to the media, detailing which of the couple's activities were or were not open to coverage.

As for the part played by the Indonesian government in hosting the reunion, foreign ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa told reporters on Thursday that he was happy the reunion could take place. From the beginning, according to Marty, Indonesia had looked at the issue as a humanitarian one and had worked hard to realize the reunion.

Furthermore, he said, Indonesia appreciated that humanitarian considerations "had proved to be capable of bringing together even countries holding different political views".

Indonesia has no extradition treaty with the United States, which is the very reason why Jakarta was chosen to host the event.

The government, said Marty, had made sure that there would be no objections to the reunion in Jakarta from any of the parties involved -- Washington and Pyongyang in particular. "For this reason, we can note that, in essence, the reunion is an indication of the willingness to cooperate," he said.

Unfortunately, all goodwill notwithstanding, it looks for the moment as if the closing chapter to this international, interracial family saga remains to be written. Washington is maintaining its insistence that Jenkins, a deserter, must not escape punishment.

Or could this be part of the Bush administration's effort to keep American veterans subdued pending the presidential election later this year? Would it be possible for Jenkins to get an official pardon from the next administration in Washington?

One can only speculate.

For the moment, however, it seems only proper that we congratulate the Jenkins-Soga family on their safe reunion, and wish them all the best for the future -- one which, we would hope, extricates them from the diplomatic muddle and political ping-pong that has so far determined the course of their lives.