SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea did not respond Thursday to US efforts to discuss the US soldier who crossed the heavily armed border and whose prospects for a speedy release are unclear at a time of high military tensions and idle communication channels.
Pvt. Travis King, who was reportedly on his way to Fort Bliss, Texas, after serving a prison sentence in South Korea for assault, came across North Korea on a civilian tour of the border village of Panmunjom on Tuesday. He is the first known American to be held in North Korea in nearly five years.
“Yesterday the Pentagon reached out to counterparts in the (North) Korean People’s Army. My understanding is that those messages have not yet been answered,” Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the US State Department, told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
Miller said the White House, Pentagon and State Department are working together to collect information on King’s well-being and whereabouts. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the US government will continue to work to ensure his safety and his return to his family.
The motive for King’s border crossing is unknown. A witness on the same civilian tour said she initially thought his sprint was some sort of stunt until she heard a US soldier on patrol yell at others to try to stop him. But King had crossed the border in seconds.
The 23-year-old King served in South Korea as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division. He could be discharged from the military and face other possible punishments after being convicted of crimes in South Korea.
In February, a court in Seoul fined him 5 million won ($3,950) by convicting him of assaulting an unknown person and damaging a police vehicle in Seoul last October, according to a transcript of the sentence obtained by The Associated Press. According to the ruling, King was also charged with beating a man at a nightclub in Seoul, although the court dismissed that charge because the victim did not want King to be punished.
It was not clear how King spent the hours between leaving the airport on Monday and joining the Panmunjom tour on Tuesday. The military realized he was missing when he did not get off the flight in Texas as expected.
North Korea has previously detained a number of Americans arrested on anti-state, espionage and other charges. But since North Korea deported American Bruce Byron Lowrance in 2018, no other Americans have been known to be detained. During the Cold War, a small number of American soldiers who had fled to North Korea later appeared in North Korean propaganda films.
“North Korea will not ‘catch and release’ a border crosser because of its strict domestic laws and desire to deter outsiders from violating them. However, the Kim regime has little incentive to detain a US citizen for long, as this may come with obligations,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“It makes sense for Pyongyang to find a way to seek damages and then expel an American for unauthorized entry into the country before an isolated incident escalates in a way that endangers North Korean diplomatic and financial interests,” he said. “At best, the US soldier will return home safely at the cost of a propaganda victory for Pyongyang, and US and North Korean officials will have a chance to resume dialogue and contacts that stagnated during the pandemic.”
Other pundits say North Korea is unlikely to return King easily, as he is a soldier who apparently voluntarily fled to North Korea, though many previous US civilian prisoners have been released after the United States sent high-profile missions to Pyongyang to secure their freedom.
The US and North Korea, which fought during the Korean War of 1950-1953, still have no diplomatic ties. Sweden has provided consular services to Americans in previous cases, but Swedish diplomatic staff have reportedly not returned since North Korea ordered foreigners to leave the country at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What I will say is that here at the State Department, we have discussed this issue with colleagues in South Korea and Sweden, including here in Washington,” Miller said.
Jeon Ha-kyu, a spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry, said Thursday that his ministry is sharing related information with the U.S.-led UN command in South Korea, without elaborating.
Currently, there are no known active dialogues between North Korea and the US or South Korea.
King’s case came as North Korea stepped up its criticism of the United States for its recent moves to strengthen its security commitments to South Korea. Earlier this week, the US deployed a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in four decades. North Korea later fired two missiles with the potential range to hit the South Korean port or the US. submarine docked.
Relatives of King said the soldier may have felt overwhelmed by his legal troubles and possible discharge from the military. They described him as a quiet loner who did not drink or smoke and loved to read the Bible.
“If he was in his right mind, I don’t see him doing that intentionally,” King’s maternal grandfather, Carl Gates, told The Associated Press from his home in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Travis is a good guy. He wouldn’t do anything not to hurt anyone. And I don’t see him trying to hurt himself.”
Carl Gates said his grandson joined the army three years ago because he wanted to serve his country and because he wanted to “do better for himself.”
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told reporters outside her home in Racine, Wisconsin, that all she cares about is getting her son home.
“I just want my son back,” she said in a video posted by Milwaukee television station WISN. “Bring my son home.”
King’s grandfather called on his country to help save his grandson.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, and Melissa Winder in Kenosha, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.