Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Tears, smiles mark Jenkinses' reunion

Chisato Hara and Adianto P. Simamora, Jakarta

After an 21-month separation, Hitomi Soga, 45, a Japanese national, was reunited here on Friday with her American husband and their two daughters, whom she had left behind in Pyongyang.

The reunion was made possible through the combined efforts of the Japanese, North Korean and Indonesian governments.

Soga was kidnapped in 1978 by North Korean agents at the age of 19 from Sado Island, Japan, and met Robert Jenkins, now 64, who allegedly deserted the U.S. army in 1965. They married in 1980.

Jenkins and daughters Mika, 21, and Belinda, 18, arrived at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport on Friday on a chartered All Nippon Airways plane.

They were accompanied by three North Korean official escorts and a number of Japanese foreign ministry officials, as well as a doctor.

Soga met her family at the airport, where husband and wife embraced and kissed tearfully, joined by their daughters as they descended the ramp just beyond, and whispered quietly among each other under the media spotlight.

The bus carrying the Jenkins-Soga family braved rush-hour traffic for 2.5 hours under police escort until they arrived at 7:21 p.m. at the five-star Intercontinental Midplaza Hotel, Central Jakarta.

The previously quiet tension in the lobby broke as the leading police car drew up. A thin-framed Jenkins entered, smiled and waved graciously to the crowd of reporters -- including dozens of Japanese TV and print media -- and Japanese onlookers who had gathered at the hotel, and the lobby filled with applause.

Belinda, in a white blouse and dark skirt, hugged and kissed a little girl who presented her with a bouquet.

Asked how he felt, Jenkins replied, "I am happy", but declined comment when asked it felt to be in the "outside world".

How long the family will stay in Jakarta and their future remains unclear, but a Japanese official said, "as long as is necessary".

After their brief appearance in the lobby, the family was led upstairs to an undisclosed suite, accompanied by Japanese Ambassador to Indonesia Yutaka Iimura and Special Advisor to the Cabinet Nakayama Kyoko.

It is clear the Japanese stance is humanitarian, with officials making an obvious effort at protecting the privacy of the family, showing diplomatic restraint at the first question breaching the bounds of propriety, privacy or politics.

"I am sure the family will be experiencing a lot of shock -- cultural shock notwithstanding -- and we are trying to respect the family's privacy ... including not raising any topics of discussion that may be potentially disturbing," a foreign ministry official who accompanied Jenkins and his daughters from Pyongyang said, requesting anonymity.

He was responding to a question about the U.S.' maintaining that Jenkins was, to quote Colin Powell, "of course, a deserter".

The official said the three appeared nervous at the start of their flight, but as the aircraft took off, the girls crowded around their one window and stared out at the sky.

"Perhaps it was their first time on a plane," he said.

It is apparent that every effort, no matter how small, was made to ensure their comfort, including the on-board video selection -- Tom and Jerry and Disney's Brother Bear at Soga's request -- and special multicultural meals of Japanese and Western fare, and kimchi.

In regards Jenkins' health, the official mentioned that he looked "about the same as a year and nine months ago", but that he had undergone a recent operation and his health had generally suffered as a result of the prolonged separation.

As for the question of the Jenkinses' dog, which was reported to have died in Japanese media, Jenkins said it was Blackie who had died of old age, but that he had gotten another dog -- a female -- for the girls to alleviate the absence of Soga. The dog is being looked after in Pyongyang for the meantime.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Embassy official in Jakarta said there was no official statement on the Jenkins-Soga case from Washington.