By George Nishiyama
CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Reuters) - U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins gave himself up to American military authorities Saturday to face charges that he deserted to communist North Korea four decades ago while on patrol in South Korea.
His surrender, at a U.S. army base in Japan, marks the end of a bizarre Cold War odyssey and is a big step toward resolving a diplomatic headache for the United States and close ally Japan. Jenkins, looking solemn and wearing a suit and tie, gave a long salute as he was received by Lt. Colonel Paul Nigara at Camp Zama, the U.S. Army's headquarters in Japan west of the capital.
"Sir, I'm Sgt Jenkins, and I'm reporting," he said.
Unlike some accused deserters thought to be at risk of trying to flee, Jenkins, 64, was not handcuffed or put into leg irons, partly out of sensitivity to sympathy in Japan for his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga.
"I can assure you that you and your family will be treated with dignity and respect at all times," said Nigara, Provost Marshal for U.S. Army Japan.
Video footage provided by the army showed that Jenkins later changed into a short-sleeved army uniform and signed some paperwork for standard in-processing back on to active duty while his military defense counsel, Capt. James Culp, looked on.
Washington says Jenkins, a native of Rich Square, North Carolina, slipped into North Korea one cold January night in 1965 while leading a patrol near the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. It says he later joined Pyongyang's propaganda machine, appearing in an anti-American film as a sinister spy.
Jenkins met Soga in North Korea after she was kidnapped by its agents in 1978 to help teach spies to speak Japanese. The couple have two North Korean-born daughters, aged 21 and 19.
"I hope we four can go to Sado Island and live together as soon as possible," Soga told reporters early on Saturday, referring to the small north Japanese island that is her home.
Soga, almost 20 years Jenkins' junior, was allowed to return to Japan two years ago with four other abductees, but had to leave her family behind.
Jenkins arrived in Tokyo for medical care in July after Japan arranged for the family to be reunited in Jakarta.
Since then, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has had to balance the U.S. desire to see Jenkins face court martial with Japanese public sympathy for his wife.
"We hope that this will be resolved taking into account the situation in which Mr Jenkins and his family have been placed," a Japanese government official said, adding that Tokyo could not interfere in the legal procedures Jenkins faces.
Jenkins, who lied about his age to enlist at 15, said in a recent interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review that he had wanted to turn himself in to "clear my conscience."
Jenkins, who is charged with desertion, aiding the enemy, encouraging disloyalty and soliciting other service members to desert, has several legal options.
Speculation has focused on a possible pre-trial deal in which he would plead guilty to one or more charges but offer to tell the U.S. military what he knows about North Korea in exchange for a punishment lighter than the maximum of life in prison.
President Bush is said to be reluctant to give Jenkins special treatment while American troops are fighting in Iraq and ahead of November's presidential election.
But Koizumi, who backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq and sent non-combat troops there in the face of public hostility, wants Soga and her family to be able to live together in her homeland.
The army said Jenkins would be supplied with whatever he needs to resume active duty, including a haircut and a uniform.
His family would be treated like other soldiers' dependants and were expected to be housed on the military base.
Known as "Super" to his family, the jug-eared Jenkins left school early and washed cars at a Ford dealership before lying about his age to enlist in the National Guard when he was 15.
He later joined the army.
Soga was one of five Japanese abductees who returned home in 2002 after more than a quarter of a century in reclusive North Korea. Her poise and a penchant for poetic expressions have won the hearts of many Japanese.