American-led U.N. Command said it has started “a conversation” with North Korea about Travis King, the American soldier who defected into North Korea while on a civilian tour along the border.
Andrew Harrison, a British lieutenant general who is the deputy commander at the U.N. Command, refused to say when the conversation started and whether the North Koreans responded constructively, citing the sensitivity of the discussions. He also declined to detail what the command knows about Pvt. Travis King’s condition.
“None of us know where this is going to end,” Harrison said during a news conference in Seoul. “I am in life an optimist, and I remain optimistic. But again, I will leave it at that.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Harrison’s comments referred to meaningful progress after the command last week confirmed its initial outreach, saying it was “working with” its North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident.
The Koreas are still technically at war since a peace treaty was never signed. The U.S., which fought alongside the South Koreans and other allies during the war, never established diplomatic relations with the North, but the line is the common way they communicate.
North Korea has remained publicly silent about King, who crossed the border while he was supposed to be heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, following his release from prison in South Korea on an assault conviction.
Analysts say North Korea may wait weeks or even months to provide meaningful information about King to maximize leverage and add urgency to U.S. efforts to secure his release. Some say North Korea may try to wrest concessions from Washington, such as tying his release to the United States and cutting back its military activities with South Korea.
King’s crossing came at a time of high tensions in the Korean Peninsula, where the pace of both North Korea’s weapons demonstrations and the United States combined military exercises have intensified in a tit-for-tat cycle.
In between the ballistic and cruise missile launches last week, North Korea’s defense minister also issued a veiled threat, saying Kentucky’s docking in South Korea could be grounds for the North to use a nuclear weapon against it. North Korea has used similar rhetoric before, but the statement underscored how strained relations are now.
The United States and South Korea have expanded their combined military exercises and increased regional deployments of U.S. aircraft and ships, including bombers, aircraft carriers, and submarines to counter the nuclear threats posed by North Korea, which has test-fired around 100 missiles since the start of 2022.
The Annapolis, whose main mission is destroying enemy ships and submarines, is powered by a nuclear reactor but is armed with conventional weapons. The Annapolis mainly docked at Jeju to load supplies, but Jang Do Young, a spokesperson for South Korea’s navy, said the U.S. and South Korean militaries were discussing whether to arrange training involving the vessel.
Two US officials told Reuters that the soldier was due to undergo disciplinary action by the US military before he crossed into North Korea, where he’s at risk of being exploited for official propaganda or tortured to get him to spill any secrets he may know.
The Washington Post reported that the soldier was punished for some kind of misconduct while serving in South Korea.
But instead of proceeding to his gate, a senior administration official told NBC News, he joined a commercial tour group headed for the joint security area. The truce village, also known as Panmunjom, is about an hour and a half from the airport and is the only place along the approximately 155-mile Demilitarized Zone where North Korea and South Korea interact.
Sarah Leslie, a tourist from New Zealand who was in King’s group, said the tour was nearing its end and the group was “sort of milling around” under the watchful eyes of South Korean and American soldiers, while soldiers on the North Korean side appeared to be inside a building.
Suddenly, she noticed a man “running what looked like full gas towards the North Korean side
The South Korean and American soldiers ordered the rest of the group inside and chased after King but couldn’t catch him.
“Everybody was stunned and shocked,” Leslie said. “There were some people who hadn’t even realized what was going on.”
King was initially reported to South Korean police after allegedly punching a Korean national at a nightclub in Seoul on Sept. 25 last year but was not indicted because the victim did not want to press charges.
In February he was fined 5 million won ($3,950) in Seoul on charges that included damaging public property, according to South Korean court documents. He was accused of repeatedly kicking a police patrol car in Seoul last year, causing several hundred dollars in damage.
He did not cooperate when apprehended by officers at the scene and was shouting profanities about Koreans and the Korean army.
King has been serving in the Army since January 2021, according to U.S. Army spokesman Bryce Dubee. He was a cavalry scout assigned to the 1st Armored Division, The Associated Press reported, and served almost two months in a South Korean prison after declining to pay a fine in an assault investigation.
King is the first known American to be detained in North Korea since Bruce Byron Lowrance, who was caught after entering from neighboring China in October 2018 and deported several weeks later. King appears to be the first U.S. soldier to defect to North Korea in more than 50 years.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that the U.S., which does not have official relations with North Korea, was “engaging” on King with South Korea and Sweden, whose embassy represents U.S. interests in North Korea.
“Our primary concern at this time is ascertaining his well-being and getting to the bottom of exactly what happened,” she said.
North Korea has not mentioned the border crossing in its state media but continued Wednesday with weapons testing that has accelerated since last year.