SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea wasn’t responding Thursday to U.S. attempts to discuss the American soldier who bolted across the heavily armed border and whose prospects for a quick release are unclear at a time of high military tensions and inactive communication channels.
Pvt. Travis King, who was supposed to have been heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, after finishing a prison sentence in South Korea for assault, ran into North Korea while on a civilian tour of the border village of Panmunjom on Tuesday. He is the first known American 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 communications have not yet been answered,” Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, told reporters Wednesday in Washington.
Miller said the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department are working together to gather information about King’s well-being and whereabouts. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. 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 dash was some kind of stunt until she heard an American soldier on patrol shouting for others to try to stop him. But King had crossed the border in a matter of seconds.
King, 23, was serving in South Korea as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division. He could be discharged from the military and face other potential penalties after being convicted of crimes in South Korea.
In February, a Seoul court fined him 5 million won ($3,950) by convicting him of assaulting an unidentified person and damaging a police vehicle in Seoul last October, according to a transcript of the verdict obtained by The Associated Press. The ruling said King had also been accused of punching a man at a Seoul nightclub, though the court dismissed that charge because the victim didn’t want King to be punished.
It wasn’t clear how King spent the hours from leaving the airport Monday until joining the Panmunjom tour Tuesday. The Army realized he was missing when he did not get off the flight in Texas as expected.
North Korea has previously held a number of Americans who were arrested for anti-state, espionage and other charges. But no other Americans were known to be detained since North Korea expelled American Bruce Byron Lowrance in 2018. During the Cold War, a small number of U.S. soldiers who fled to North Korea later appeared North Korean propaganda films.
“North Korea is not going to ‘catch and release’ a border-crosser because of its strict domestic laws and desire to deter outsiders from breaking them. However, the Kim regime has little incentive to hold an American citizen very long, as doing so can entail liabilities,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“For Pyongyang, it makes sense to find a way of extracting some compensation and then expel an American for unauthorized entry into the country before an isolated incident escalates in ways that risk North Korean diplomatic and financial interests,” he said. “In the best-case scenario, the American soldier will return home safely at the cost of some propaganda victory for Pyongyang, and U.S and North Korean officials will have an opportunity to resume dialogue and contacts that went stagnant during the pandemic.”
Other experts say North Korea won’t likely easily return King as he is a soldier who apparently voluntarily fled to North Korea, though many previous U.S. civilian detainees were released after the United States sent high-profile missions to Pyongyang to secure their freedom.
The U.S. and North Korea, who fought during the 1950-53 Korean War, still have no diplomatic ties. Sweden provided consular services for Americans in past cases, but Swedish diplomatic staff reportedly haven’t returned since North Korea ordered foreigners to leave the country at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What I will say is that we here at the State Department have engaged with counterparts in South Korea and with Sweden on this issue, including here in Washington,” Miller said.
Jeon Ha-kyu, a spokesperson of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said Thursday his ministry is sharing related information with the American-led U.N. Command in South Korea, without elaborating.
Currently, there are no known, active dialogues between North Korea and the U.S. or South Korea.
King’s case happened as North Korea has been stepping up its criticism of the United States over its recent moves to bolster its security commitment to South Korea. Earlier this week, the U.S. deployed a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea for the first time in four decades. North Korea later test-fired two missiles with the potential range to strike the South Korean port whether the U.S.. submarine docked.
King’s family members 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 enjoyed reading the Bible.
“I can’t see him doing that intentionally if he was in his right mind,” King’s maternal grandfather, Carl Gates, told The Associated Press from his Kenosha, Wisconsin, home. “Travis is a good guy. He wouldn’t do nothing to hurt nobody. And I can’t see him trying to hurt himself.”
Carl Gates said his grandson joined the military three years ago out of a desire to serve his country and because he “wanted to do better for himself.”
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told reporters outside her Racine, Wisconsin, home that all she cares about is bringing her son home.
“I just want my son back,” she said in video posted by Milwaukee television station WISN. “Get my son home.”
King’s grandfather called on his country to help rescue his grandson.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, and Melissa Winder in Kenosha, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.