US soldier detained in North Korea: What we know
US soldier Travis King was believed to be in North Korean custody Wednesday after crossing the border during a tourist trip to the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarised Zone.
The US-led United Nations Command has said it is working with Pyongyang’s military to “resolve this incident” but with relations between Pyongyang and Washington at one of their lowest points in years, it’s unclear what will happen.
This is what we know:
“Private second-class Travis King was on a tour of the DMZ in the Panmunjom truce village. Shouting “ha ha ha”, according to an eyewitness, he ran off and crossed the border into North Korea wilfully and without authorisation,” US officials said.
Most of the border between the two Koreas is heavily fortified. But at Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area, the frontier is marked only by a low concrete divider and is relatively easy to cross, despite soldiers on both sides.
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The soldiers on both sides have not been armed since a 2018 deal and the North has significantly scaled back its presence at the JSA since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even so, under armistice protocols, South Korean or US personnel could not run across the border to retrieve King and he is now believed to be in North Korean custody.
Why did he do it?
Police and media reports said King had had repeated run-ins with the law during his time in the South, a key US security ally that hosts some 27,000 US troops. He was released on July 10 from a two-month stint in prison on assault charges.
King was being escorted home to the United States for disciplinary reasons but managed to leave the airport and join the tour group, US media said.
His mother said she was shocked to learn her son had crossed into the communist, nuclear-armed North, which has no formal diplomatic ties with its “arch enemy” the United States.
“I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” Claudine Gates told ABC News, adding that she had last heard from him a few days ago when he told her he was coming back to his base in Fort Bliss.
Gates said she just wants “him to come home”.
Former South Korean national security officialChoi Gi-il told AFP that it looked like King had carried out his border crossing “impulsively”.
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“It took the US completely off guard,” he said.
What does North Korea think?
Pyongyang has a long history of detaining Americans and using them as bargaining chips in bilateral ties.
“The North could see this situation as something they can take advantage of in its dealing with Washington amid ongoing tensions,” Choi said.
One of the last US citizens to be detained by the North was student Otto Warmbier, who was held for a year-and-a-half before being released in a coma to the United States. He died six days later.
“Such a case indicates that the North could handle this issue over the long haul rather than take immediate actions now with the intention of waiting to see how the US will respond to it,” Choi said.
Is this a problem for the US?
In short, yes.
“America is now faced with a dilemma between protecting its citizen and strengthening extended deterrence against North Korea,” said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“Given the current, turbulent relationship between the US and North Korea, coming up with any meaningful outcome to solve this issue is expected to take a considerable amount of time,” Yang told AFP.
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The only possible silver lining could be that if Washington turns to Beijing — North Korea’s friend and main trading partner — to help mediate, it could “have a positive impact on the resolution of the ongoing US-China conflict”, Yang said.
“King possesses certain propaganda value for North Koreans,” said Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo.
However, after questioning him, North Korea might realise King lacks the personality and motivation to be an effective propagandist, Tikhonov said, at which point Pyongyang “will try to ‘sell’ him back to the US”.
“He is an important bargaining chip,” he told AFP, adding that it was likely King would not be harmed.
North Korea has yet to reopen after sealing its borders at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This, plus the fact King seems to have gone to North Korea to escape his criminal problems and not due to romantic ideas about Pyongyang’s regime, means it is likely that the North will deport him,” Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, told AFP.