Wednesday, 19 July 2023 18:22

A US soldier has “willfully” crossed into North Korea. Here’s what we know.

Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on July 19, 2023 in Paju, South Korea.

A US soldier is now likely in North Korean custody after making an unauthorized crossing into the country, according to the Department of Defense. The development could force the US into rare talks with North Korea and is likely to complicate an already tense relationship between the two countries.

“What we do know is that one of our service members, who was on a tour, willfully and without authorization crossed the military demarcation line. We believe he is in DPRK custody,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

According to the Pentagon, the person who crossed the North Korean border is Private Second Class Travis King, a 23-year-old soldier who has served in the army since January 2021 and who recently faced disciplinary action in South Korea. The situation has fueled concerns that North Korea could use King’s detention for leverage, with national security experts noting that it’s definitely likely to be used for propaganda purposes.

Austin has said that his central focus at the moment is King’s welfare and that the DOD is “closely monitoring and investigating the situation.” The United Nations Command, which oversees the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, has also stated that it is “working with our (North) Korean People’s Army counterparts to resolve this incident.”

Who is the US soldier in North Korea?

King reportedly was involved in altercations in Seoul that led to his being detained by local police in October 2022. During his arrest, he is said to have damaged a police car, and was ultimately ordered to pay a fine after pleading guilty to the charges he faced.

Later on, King spent nearly 50 days in a South Korean detention facility after facing assault charges. He was scheduled to fly back to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced more disciplinary consequences, but left the airport after going through security. At that point, King joined a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area, which includes a set of buildings contained in the 150-mile demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. During that tour, he reportedly left the group and ran across the border.

“I thought it was a bad joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realized it wasn’t a joke, and then everybody reacted and things got crazy,” a member of the tour told CBS News.

King’s mother, Claudine Gates, has expressed shock about the situation, and told ABC: “I can’t see Travis doing anything like that.”

What happens now? And what impact could Travis King have on US foreign policy?

Austin, in his Tuesday briefing, said he was “foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop and so we will remain focused on this.” He has also said that the US has done outreach to North Korean military officials on the subject. According to Reuters, the UN Command has spoken over a hotline with North Korean soldiers about King. It’s not yet clear what next steps look like in possible negotiations. And thus far, North Korea has not commented publicly about the incident.

This incident comes as tensions between the two countries have been high as the US has deployed a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea, and as North Korea has tested ballistic missiles in recent weeks, including on Wednesday.

Experts told Reuters that North Korea could attempt to use King’s return as leverage for concessions, but that it’s more likely to use King’s detainment as propaganda that tries to paint the US in a weak light.

“King is being interrogated by North Korea officials to ascertain if he is a spy or some other type of threat,” Wellesley political science professor emerita Katharine Moon told Vox. “Pyongyang is likely to use this case as a way to pressure the US and its allies to bend on sanctions and reduce what the DPRK considers as military threats to the regime — most recently, the docking of a nuclear-capable US submarine in South Korea.”

Historically, US soldiers — whether prisoners or defectors — have received unique treatment in North Korea, Reuters’s Josh Smith writes: “When a U.S. soldier defects, North Korea has to create a security and surveillance team for them, and arrange an interpreter, a private vehicle, driver and lodging, [former North Korean diplomat Tae Yong-ho] said.” From there, the government usually tries to capitalize on the prisoner for propaganda including in material like films.

Have Americans willingly gone to North Korea before?

King is the first American to be taken into North Korean custody in five years.

Most recently, Bruce Byron Lowrance was held by North Korea in 2018 after he crossed into the country from China. He was detained for one month and released. Prior to that, Otto Warmbier was detained in 2016 during a visit with a tour group and charged for allegedly trying to take a propaganda poster.

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, but returned to the US 17 months later after experiencing a severe neurological injury during his time in North Korea. US authorities have said he was beaten during his time in North Korea and Warmbier passed away shortly following his return.

According to historian Erik Scott, there have been a handful of US soldiers who have defected to North Korea in the past. The last case was Joseph White in 1982, during which he denounced the US and lauded North Korean leaders. White reportedly died in a swimming accident in 1985.