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U.S. soldier's life of mystery

Jenkins and daughter Belinda see off Soga at Pyongyang's airport in October, 2002.
Robert Jenkins
North Korea
United States

(CNN) -- Charles Robert Jenkins was on patrol with the U.S. Army unit near Korea's De-Militarized Zone in 1965 when he vanished after investigating a noise.

The Army says the then 24-year-old sergeant deserted and defected to North Korea.

His friends and family in America say he was abducted by the North and brainwashed.

They remember him as "Super" -- a slightly built, jug-eared young man that left school early and washed cars before lying about his age to enlist in the National Guard at age 15.

He later joined the army and, according to his nephew, loved the military so much he had "U.S. Army" tattooed on his arm.

But little is known about the last 39 years of his life spent in North Korea.

Most accounts have him as part of Pyongyang's propaganda machine that may have earned Jenkins a relatively pampered lifestyle in the Stalinist state.

In the 1980s he starred in a North Korean anti-U.S. propaganda film, playing the role of a menacing American villain.

He also taught English where he met and later married his former student Hitomi Soga -- a Japanese woman kidnapped in 1978 as part of North Korea's espionage strategy.

The couple has two daughters, Mika and Belinda, now aged 21 and 18 respectively.

Soga was one of at least 15 Japanese grabbed in a bizarre plot to train North Korean spies.

Some have died but in late 2002 North Korean leader Kim Jong Il allowed surviving Japanese abductees like Soga to return home.

But her family did not join Soga, fearing Japan would hand Jenkins over to U.S. authorities.

He has good reason to worry.

"Sgt. Jenkins is, of course, a deserter from the U.S. Army and those charges remain outstanding," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said earlier this week.

Jenkins could face U.S. military charges.

Japan has refused to allow Soga to return to North Korea and Jenkins and their daughters have remained in North Korea.

However, the Japanese government brokered a family reunion in Indonesia -- a country with no extradition treaty with the United States and outside North Korea's influence.

"I wish with all my heart to live in Japan with all my family together," Soga has said.

The trip is the first time Jenkins has stepped outside North Korea but bigger challenges remain.

Jenkins must decide if he is ready to try and live in Japan as his wife wishes.

But there he faces possible arrest and extradition to the U.S. for deserting his military post 40 years ago.

-- CNN Tokyo Bureau Chief Atika Shubert contributed to this report.

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