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Sunday, July 18, 2004

MEDIA MIX

If Japan does get Jenkins, will he really want to stay?


Ever on the lookout for sneaky connections, the media had characterized the July 9 reunion of Hitomi Soga and her family in Indonesia as being rushed through by the Liberal Democratic Party in time to help its election chances July 11. Some people even thought North Korea was in on it.

While the family was stuck in a traffic jam en route to their luxury hotel in Jakarta, TBS, which was covering the reunion live, had to fill up time, and the pundits in the Tokyo studio argued over whether or not Pyongyang had allowed Soga's husband, Charles Robert Jenkins, and their two daughters to leave the "Hermit Kingdom" in order to help the LDP; the idea being that Kim Jong Il doesn't want to change Japanese prime ministers in midstream on the path to the normalization of ties.

As the results showed, even if there was such a scheme it didn't succeed. The Japanese people are delighted with the reunion, but they aren't gullible enough to transfer that delight to support for the ruling party. A few spoilsports tried to bring up the reunion's estimated huge cost to the nation, but the citizens don't seem to care. "At last, a meaningful use for our tax money," faxed one woman after TBS solicited comments from viewers.

But there is a scheme. The media insists that everything about the Soga reunion has been carefully stage-managed since the moment Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met Jenkins in Pyongyang on May 22 and gave him his "guarantee."

This guarantee has been the topic of much discussion: Jenkins is assumed to be a U.S. Army deserter and the Bush administration, which is at war, isn't going to grant him a pardon that easily. But the Japanese government is determined to have Jenkins and his two daughters come to Japan and live.

Soga is obviously in on the scheme. It was her idea to meet Jenkins as he and the two daughters came down the ramp from the chartered ANA airplane; and apparently she enthusiastically agreed to having TV cameras there to record it. At the last minute, airport security banned the cameras from the tarmac, but a government official who was present had a camcorder ready.

The money shot of Soga planting a big kiss on the mouth of her startled husband (who obviously wasn't in on the scheme) has been replayed a zillion times on Japanese TV, but that's not what it was intended for.

The government quickly sent the tape to the United States media, who didn't air it quite as often, but got the point. Even an official U.S. government spokesman admitted he was "impressed" by it, but nonetheless said the United States still expects Jenkins to be handed over if he lands on Japanese soil.

Jenkins hasn't said publicly if he wants to settle in Japan. It's a matter that interests North Korea as much as it does the Foreign Ministry.

Japanese reporters have had fun pestering the three North Korean officials who were sent to "assist" Jenkins. The Japanese government prevented the officials from having any contact with the American after arriving, and whenever they went outside they were swarmed by journalists who insisted on knowing where they were going and what they were doing.

The reporters seemed to be acting mean on purpose, but according to one Fuji TV commentator, "they're just bored" since they didn't have access to Jenkins.

Consequently, anything that scurried out via the Foreign Ministry was caught and dissected. Jenkins told someone that he "wants to go to Japan," and also that he wants to "stay," though it wasn't clear where. One news show actually asked an English-language expert to explain the semantics of the word "stay."

The presence of the North Korean officials indicated that they believed there was still a possibility he could go back, though all other indications said that possibility was close to zero. The Japanese government will do anything to get Jenkins into Japan, even if they have to tie him down to a stretcher.

The plot now is to bring him to Japan for health reasons, an obvious subterfuge meant to confound the U.S. authorities (and, as American commentator Dave Spector pointed out, an insult to the Indonesian health-care system). And it worked. The United States has said it won't do anything for the time being.

If it seems that Jenkins' own feelings have been sidestepped, no one acts as if they're important. He enjoyed a standard of living in Pyongyang that the vast majority of North Koreans could never hope to achieve, but it's a good bet the North Carolina native would choose to live somewhere else. Communist or no communist, he understands through experience the difference between life in North Korea and life in a real democracy.

But that democracy doesn't have to be Japan. The Japanese government and media are treating the Soga-Jenkins affair with only one outcome in mind, but the prospect of the family settling down on Sado Island and living happily ever after in a cramped, rented house still depends on the U.S. government, and if Jenkins is pardoned there is no reason why he and his family can't reside in America.

In fact, it makes more sense. Everyone in the family speaks English to some extent while only Soga speaks Japanese. More importantly, they would have a better chance of living a normal life, since the American media has more important things to cover. In Japan they would always be under some kind of scrutiny, at least as long as the abduction issue remains unresolved.

If they did choose America, it would break the Japanese government's heart, not because such a decision would seem ungrateful, but because having the family here, safe and sound, would always be proof of the government's humanity and warmth. They so want to be given credit for a good deed, even if it's not a particularly extraordinary one.



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