North Korea says it has US soldier Travis King. What now?
Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — North Korea’s first public confirmation that a US soldier crossed into its territory in July has prompted an appeal from his family to treat him humanely, as questions remain about why he entered one of the most hostile countries on Earth at a time of heightened tensions on the peninsula.
US officials say Army Pvt. Travis King “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea on July 18, while taking a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA), a small collection of buildings inside the 150-mile-long demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has separated North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
There is no physical barrier inside the JSA, and a US official said that after bolting over the demarcation line delineating the border, King tried to enter a North Korean facility – but the door was locked. He then ran to the back of the building, at which point he was hurried into a van and driven away by North Korean guards.
The US has repeatedly tried to contact North Korea for an update on King’s condition, but has still not received a substantive response, officials told CNN earlier in August.
Here’s what we know.
Who is Travis King?
King is a cavalry scout who joined the military in January 2021. At the time of his rotation in South Korea, he was assigned to the 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas, according to Army spokesperson Bryce Dubee.
Just over a week before making his dash across the border, King was released from a detention facility in South Korea, where he had served 50 days doing labor, defense officials told CNN.
The day before he crossed into North Korea, King was supposed to board a flight to Texas, where he was to face disciplinary procedures. But after Army escorts released him at a security checkpoint at Incheon International Airport near Seoul, King left the airport on his own.
The next day, he joined a tour of the JSA he had previously booked with a private company.
US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told the Aspen Security Forum last month that King “assaulted an individual in South Korea and had been in custody of the South Korean government and was going to come back to the United States to face the consequences in the Army.”
Jaqueda Gates, King’s sister, told CNN on August 2 that her brother is “not the type to just disappear.”
“So, that’s why I feel like the story is deeper than that,” she said, adding: “I don’t I don’t believe that you just do vanished and ran away.”
The soldier’s mother, Claudine Gates, on August 16 asked Pyongyang to treat him humanely and grant him a phone call to speak with her, according to Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for the family.
Why does this matter?
Relations between the United States and North Korea have been fraught for decades, but things are particularly tense right now.
The North has ramped up its nuclear and missile programs in the years following a breakdown in talks between former US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2019.
Those talks, which spanned three in-person meetings and saw Trump become the first sitting US President to step over the same demarcation line King crossed, ended without any meaningful diplomatic breakthroughs.
To date, North Korea has tested intercontinental ballistic missiles three times this year and accused Washington and Seoul of inflaming tensions with military exercises and weapon deployments, including that of a US Navy nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarine to the South Korean port of Busan in July.
Last year, North Korea, test-fired more than 90 cruise and ballistic missiles, including one that flew over Japan, in defiance of international sanctions. The uptick in testing has sparked concerns it may be preparing for a potential nuclear test – its first since 2017.
Kim fired his top general amid a shakeup of North Korea’s military leadership and said he wants his army to “gird for a war,” according to a state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report on August 10.
While the report did not mention the US or South Korea by name, it appeared to refer to them obliquely, saying North Korean officials had “analyzed the military moves of the chief culprits of deteriorated situation” on the peninsula.
What are the risks for Travis King?
King, believed to be the first US soldier to cross into North Korea since 1982, is in the hands of a notoriously autocratic and opaque one-party regime that regards the United States as a mortal enemy.
What military intelligence value King could provide to North Korea is uncertain. As a private, he would not likely have access to top-level information, but just by being on a US military installation, he may be able to talk about things like base layouts or what units and numbers of troops are there.
As a soldier and US citizen, King gives North Korea a potentially powerful bargaining chip – though what Pyongyang might demand to return him to US custody is unknown.
Pyongyang could also use King for propaganda purposes.
In an August 16 report, KCNA claimed King, who is Black, expressed “his willingness to seek refugee” in North Korea or a third country and that he had decided to enter North Korea as “he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army.”
The KCNA report came just two days before a trilateral summit between the leaders of the US, South Korea and Japan in Maryland. The threat all three countries face from North Korea is expected to be high on the agenda.
Referring to the KCNA report, a US defense official said Washington “can’t verify these alleged comments.”
“We remain focused on his safe return. The (Defense) Department’s priority is to bring Private King home, and that we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome, ” the official said.
The US does not have official diplomatic relations with North Korea. Instead the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang acts as a liaison for the US.
What has happened in the past?
A handful of US soldiers defected to North Korea in the decades after the end of the Korean War, but the most recent instances of US nationals being detained in the country have been civilians – sometimes for long periods as US officials try to secure their release and Pyongyang looks to extract concessions.
The last American known to be held by North Korea was Bruce Byron Lowrance, who, according to North Korean state media, crossed from China into North Korea in 2018.
Pyongyang accused Lowrance of working for the Central Intelligence Agency, but released him about a month after he was taken into custody, with the Swedish Embassy facilitating the release.
Perhaps the most well known recent case of an American being held in North Korea was that of Otto Warmbier, a college student who traveled there as a tourist in 2016.
His planned five-day stay turned into a 17-month detention after he was accused of trying to steal a political banner from his hotel.
Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor, but was released to US officials in 2017. He died with severe brain damage less than a week after his return, with Washington saying he had been tortured in custody.
Perhaps the most infamous case of a US soldier defecting to North Korea was that of Charles Jenkins, a US Army sergeant who crossed into the North in 1965 while stationed at a US military unit near the DMZ.
Jenkins later claimed to have regretted his defection and blamed the decision on alcohol.
While in North Korea, he appeared in propaganda films, taught the country’s spies English and spent up to eight hours a day studying the writings of North Korean leaders.
He was allowed to leave North Korea in 2004, two years after his Japanese wife, who was kidnapped from her home in Japan in 1978 and left North Korea under a deal between Pyongyang and Tokyo.