The Fate of Jenkins Tied to Bush's Future
John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)
Charles Robert Jenkins will accompany his family to Japan in hope of being able to live with them permanently. The saga surrounding the Soga-Jenkins family represents more than its billing by the Japanese as the "love story of the summer." The predicament faced by this family embodies the essence of recent history and could tilt the course of world politics in the near future. This family is the product of a world tortured by the Cold War and their fate as a reunited family is being held hostage by the whims of today's leaders who see a national and a personal stake in outcome of this chronicle so embedded with politics. Once again it seems as though the United States will play a decisive role in determining whether or not this family will remain together.
Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi has put the weight of his office and of the alliance with the United States behind his plea that the U.S. grant a pardon to the alleged desertion of Charles Jenkins from the U.S. Army in 1965. Considering that Koizumi's decision to send 550 Self Defense Forces to Iraq was in part motivated to secure a U.S. commitment to resolve the conflict with North Korea, it can also be said that the lives of 550 Japanese citizens have been put in harms way to help persuade the U.S. government to be lenient on this vulnerable family.
News reports indicate that the Bush administration has not given up its declared intention to court martial Charles Jenkins for desertion once he ends his scheduled hospitalization in Japan. U.S. policy remains ambiguous with its ambassador to Japan only going so far as to state that, "Jenkins is classified as a deserter and the U.S. will seek custody as and when he comes to Japan. Now that leaves several blanks in there, one whether the U.S will do that, and I have no instructions on that." (BBC, July 15)
The stakes are high. If the United States decides to prosecute Jenkins the consequences on both Japanese attitudes toward President Bush and his "close friend" Junichiro Koizumi will sour dramatically. The bi-lateral costs could be enormous. However, the U.S. government is afraid that as a former soldier, the case of Jenkins could set a precedent relevant to present day Iraq. Already, there exist several cases of desertion that are being tried in military courts throughout the United States. Considering the increasingly difficult security situation faced by U.S. soldiers in Iraq complicated by the questionable basis upon which they were originally sent there, the administration is most likely concerned that pardoning Jenkins now would be a strategic blunder splitting the U.S. armed forces into pieces and undermining its authority among the ranks. Not only would this not play well in the U.S. military but it would also have tremendous political consequences for the Bush administration's re-election campaign. If Bush is perceived to be weak on deserters, it will become increasingly vulnerable on the war as well.
Which explains why Koizumi has positioned Jenkins' health condition as a consideration warranting a period of asylum while in Japan. Although there exists a possibility that the U.S. would push the argument that Jenkins was actually "abducted" to North Korea, this position will be difficult to defend in light of his deep involvement in North Korea's propaganda machine. While few doubt the notion that Jenkins' health is deteriorating and is in need of treatment, suspicions were raised about the severity of his condition when he was seen walking rather unencumbered out of the plane arriving in Indonesia last week and then witnessed walking very painfully with a cane less than one week later.
The Bush administration does not want to risk Japanese support in Iraq and its long-term interests in Japan on the fate of Jenkins. Nevertheless, the Jenkins-Soga family reunification could not have come at a worse time for the U.S. president. Unfortunately, the case will have to remain unresolved until U.S. elections have ended in November. Which leads us to the conclusion that Jenkins will likely be characterized as medically unfit until that time in order to prevent a court martial. That this family, which has already gone through so much, has to face another five months of ambiguity is hard to justify. Unfortunately, as was stated in the introduction to this article, the situation surrounding their fate is weighted with politically explosive consequences and the cold reality of the matter is that their future will be put on hold so long as Bush's future seems uncertain.