Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has spent two years on a delicate diplomatic mission: negotiating the release of Japanese citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and '80s by North Korea. That effort has produced an unintended result: a looming extradition battle with the U.S. Among those freed is Charles Jenkins, who is accused by Washington of deserting from the U.S. Army and defecting to North Korea in 1965. On July 18, Jenkins was expected to land at Tokyo's Haneda Airport with his wife, former abductee Hitomi Soga, 45, and their children Mika, 21, and Belinda, 18.
Jenkins, 64, would like to settle in Japan, but the U.S. has said it wants to extradite him for prosecution. Koizumi has asked for leniency, if not a pardon. For the U.S., this diplomatic face-off comes at a bad time: it's not keen to alienate Japan, a key ally in the war on Iraq, but it also can't afford to appear soft on deserters. Jenkins' ill health may help: he reportedly suffers from abdominal surgery complications and is expected to head straight to a Japanese hospital. Reeling from the scandal over its abuse of prisoners in Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to risk a public relations debacle by hunting down a sick man. So, Jenkins might be safe after all—so long as he doesn't leave his hospital bed.