SEOUL, South Korea — Pvt. Travis King, the U.S. soldier who dashed across the DMZ into North Korea last month, is alive in the secretive nation, North Korea‘s state media confirmed Wednesday in Pyongyang.
Citing an investigation into his case, the official KCNA news agency reported this morning that Pvt. King, who is Black, defected because he “harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army.”
The soldier, believed to be the first American to be held by the North in more than five years, admitted that he had “illegally intruded” into North Korea and “expressed his willingness to seek [refuge in North Korea] or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned with life at the unequal American society,” the report continued.
But one expert questioned the motive that the KCNA implied, suggesting that a possible TV appearance would offer Americans a better opportunity to gauge Pvt. King’s true state of mind.
The deputy commander of the UN Command, General Andy Harrison, confirmed to reporters last month that the multinational force had made contact with its North Korean counterparts over the issue, but did not offer further information on the state of contacts, or of Pvt. King’s status.
A U.S. Defense Department official, speaking on background, told The Associated Press Wednesday that U.S. officials had no way to verify North Korea‘s claims about Pvt. King. The official said the Pentagon was working through all available channels to bring Pvt. King home.
The soldier’s mother, Claudine Gates, spoke to Army officials Tuesday evening and appealed to North Korea to treat her son humanely, according to a statement released by the King family.
The KCNA statement was the first full acknowledgment by the regime of Kim Jong Un that Pvt. King, who crossed into the North on July 18, was in its custody.
On that day, Pvt. King was part of a civilian tour group visiting the iconic truce village of Panmunjom. The village is the only area in the heavily armed DMZ, which crosses the waist of the Korean peninsula, where the border is unblocked by obstacles and hazards.
The 23-year-old soldier shocked his contingent of tourists, and his escort of South Korean and U.S. troops – who are unarmed in the unusual security environment of Panmunjom – by suddenly dashing across the frontier, which is demarcated by a line of concrete.
It emerged that the private soldier, who had gone AWOL before joining the tour, had earlier been incarcerated by South Korean authorities for violent behavior. He was facing repatriation to the U.S., there to be dishonorably discharged from the army.
Some subsequent reports from the U.S. alleged that Pvt. King had been suffering family stresses back home.
What happens next is unclear.
U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have made clear that Pvt. King’s well-being is their foremost priority and have sought his return to the U.S. That indicates a potential negotiation ahead.
U.S. citizens previously imprisoned in the country for such infractions as illegally crossing the border or spreading Christian tracts have been returned after high-level diplomatic interventions, including by former President Bill Clinton.
Not all such sagas end well. Visiting American student Otto Warmbier, who was tried on vague charges of subversion, was imprisoned for 17 months. He was returned, comatose, to the U.S. where he subsequently died, though his exact cause of death remains unknown.
If Pvt. King wishes to remain in North Korea, a handful of U.S. soldiers who deserted and defected between the 1960s and 1980s offer a precedent. All are now deceased, but they were offered refuge and lived in North Korea, working as language teachers and even playing the roles of villainous foreigners in North Korean films.
“We need to see [Pvt. King] when they televise him,” said Steve Tharp, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel with long experience in South Korea. “We can read his face while listening to his words.”
U.S. Navy prisoners seized in the 1968 capture of the spyship USS Pueblo managed to communicate their feelings to American audiences. In front of North Korean cameras, they offered what they told their captors was “the Hawaiian good luck sign” – but was in fact, “the finger.”
Mr. Tharp was dubious about the rationale offered by KCNA for the private’s decision to defect.
“It would not surprise me that he would not want to return to racism in the U.S.,” he said. “But I don’t think the racism in the military is nearly as big as the racial split in U.S. society, which has become enormous.”
Even so, the KCNA report indicates that the private is, at least, alive.
There had been speculation that he might have been shot in a drastic anti-COVID quarantine measure – a fate that befell a South Korean would-be defector in 2020.