North Korea was silent on Thursday despite attempts by the United States to speak about the American soldier who escaped after escaping the heavily armed border. Prospects for a quick release were unclear at a time of high military tensions and inactivity in communication channels.
Private Travis King, who was due to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, after serving a prison sentence in South Korea for assault, ran across the border during a civilian visit to the border town of Panmunjom on Tuesday. He is the first American known to be detained in North Korea in nearly five years.
“The Pentagon contacted their counterparts in the (North) Korean People’s Army yesterday. As I understand it, the communications have not been responded to,” Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the US State Department, told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
According to Miller, the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department are working together to gather information on King’s whereabouts and condition. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the US government will continue to work to ensure his safety and return to his family.
Why King crossed the border is unknown for now. A witness participating in the same visit said that she at first thought it was a prank until she heard a US soldier on patrol yelling at others to try to stop him. But King had crossed the border in just a few seconds.
King, 23, was serving in South Korea as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division. He faced the possibility of being discharged from the military and other possible penalties upon his conviction.
In February, a South Korean court fined King 5 million won ($3,950) after being convicted of assaulting a person and causing damage to a police vehicle in October in Seoul, according to the verdict transcript seen by Associated Press.
According to the ruling, the soldier was also charged with beating a man at a nightclub in the city, although the court dismissed the charge because the victim did not want him to be punished.
Another question mark is what King did in the hours between leaving the airport on Monday and taking part in the visit to Panmunjom on Tuesday. The army found out he was missing when he didn’t disembark from the flight in Texas.
North Korea had already detained several Americans in the past on charges of alleged espionage and subversion, among others. But it is the first known arrest of an American since Pyongyang ousted Bruce Byron Lowrance in 2018.
During the Cold War, a small number of US soldiers who fled to the hermetic nation later appeared in North Korean propaganda films.
“North Korea is not going to ‘catch and release’ someone who has crossed the border because of its strict domestic laws and its desire to discourage foreigners from breaking them. But the Kim (Jong-Un) regime has little incentive to hold a US citizen for long, as it may bring liability on him,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University.
“For Pyongyang, it makes sense to find a way to get some compensation and then expel an American for trespassing, before an isolated incident escalates and threatens its diplomatic and financial interests,” he added.
“In the best case, the American soldier will return home safely in exchange for some propaganda victory for Pyongyang, and American and North Korean officials will have a chance to resume dialogue and contacts that have stalled during the pandemic.”
Other experts say that North Korea unlikely to easily return King He is a soldier who apparently fled the country voluntarily, though many American civilians detained there in the past have been released after Washington sent high-profile missions to Pyongyang to do so.
The United States and North Korea, which clashed during the Korean War (1950-1953), still do not have diplomatic relations. In the past, Sweden provided consular services in other cases involving Americans, but Swedish diplomatic personnel have reportedly not returned to North Korea since the country closed its borders due to Covid-19 in early 2020 and ordered all foreigners to leave.
For his part, Jeon Ha-kyu, a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, said Thursday that his department is sharing information with the US-led United Nations Command in South Korea, but did not provide further details.