By Simon Lewis and David Brunstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – It has never been easy for the United States to secure the return of citizens from North Korea, one of the most isolated countries in the world.
The task may be even more difficult in the case of Private Travis King, with communications between the countries all but non-existent, diplomats and negotiators say.
King, an active-duty U.S. Army soldier serving in South Korea, sprinted into North Korea on a civilian tour of the Demilitarized Zone on the border between the two Koreas.
Washington is fully mobilized to contact Pyongyang about him, US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said Thursday, but North Korea has yet to respond.
Since US President Joe Biden took office in 2021, limited contacts between Washington and Pyongyang have all but ceased as the Trump administration’s attempts to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program failed and North Korea sealed its borders in response to COVID-19.
It is a different situation from what most previous negotiators have faced.
“The North Koreans have shown no interest in dialogue with us at this point,” said Thomas Hubbard, a retired U.S. ambassador who traveled to Pyongyang in 1994 to retrieve Bobby Hall, the last serving member of the U.S. military detained in North Korea.
At the time, US officials had just signed a first nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il.
“We were in a very different time,” Hubbard said. “The North Koreans saw that they had some interest in the relationship with the United States.”
U.S. negotiators have few ways to reach the North Koreans. The countries have no diplomatic relations and Sweden, which officially represents US interests in Pyongyang, withdrew its diplomats in August 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
US officials said the United States had tried to reach North Korea about King through the United Nations Command hotline and other channels, including the UN in New York, where North Korea has a representative.
The best course of action for now, experts said, may be a low-key public attitude.
“About 90% of (the outcome) will be determined by how we respond now,” said Mickey Bergman, executive director of the Richardson Center founded by Bill Richardson, a former diplomat who previously negotiated with North Korea for the release of detainees.
North Korea would likely question King at length and then have the choice of deporting or indicting him, Bergman said, adding that the US should avoid “beating our chest” and instead calmly communicate that Washington respects Pyongyang’s right to detain and interrogate any soldier who has entered its territory.
Jenny Town, of Washington’s 38 North think tank, said the matter was complicated because he didn’t know King’s intentions or whether he actually wanted to return. King had been detained in South Korea for more than a month for assault and was due to fly back to the US to face military discipline.
Cases of US soldiers going to North Korea are extremely rare. In 1965, Charles Robert Jenkins, a 25-year-old US Army sergeant, walked DMZ and spent four decades in North Korea, teaching English and also playing an American spy in a propaganda film.
‘HE IS THEIR PAWN NOW’
A former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea said King may be being used as a propaganda tool, but it was not clear how long North Korea would want to exploit his presence.
“Holding an American soldier is probably not a very cost-effective headache for the North in the long run,” said Tae Yong-ho, now a member of the South Korean parliament.
A cautionary case of North Korean detention is that of Otto Warmbier, a student who was detained while on tour in 2015 and sentenced to 15 years hard labor for attempting to steal an item carrying a propaganda slogan.
Warmbier was eventually returned to the United States in a coma in 2017, but died days later.
Otto’s father Fred feels empathy for King and his family.
“This is about a young man – we don’t know his mental state,” he told Reuters in an interview. “He’s their pawn now. If it were any other country in the world, there would be communication now.”
When asked about King, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday that the Biden administration has repeatedly tried to restore dialogue with Pyongyang since taking office, offering new nuclear talks without preconditions.
“We sent that message several times,” Blinken told the Aspen Security Forum. “This is the answer we got: one missile launch after another,” referring to repeated North Korean missile tests.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Don Durfee and Stephen Coates)