The already strained ties between the United States and North Korea have become even more complicated following a bizarre incident involving a US soldier illegally crossing into the northern peninsula. US officials believe Travis King is now being held in custody.
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King was serving nearly two months in a South Korean prison for assault. He was released on July 10 and was being sent home on Monday to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced additional military discipline and discharge from the service.
He was escorted as far as customs but left the airport before boarding his plane. It was unclear how he spent the hours until joining a tour in the border village of Panmunjom during which he ran across the border on Tuesday afternoon.
Who is Travis King?
The 23-year-old soldier was a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division. The army released his name and limited information after King’s family was notified. But a number of US officials provided additional details on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
King’s mother told ABC News she was shocked when she heard her son had crossed into North Korea: “I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” Claudine Gates, of Racine, Wisconsin, said.
Gates said the US army told her on Tuesday morning of her son’s entrance to North Korea. She said she last heard from her son “a few days ago”, when he told her he would return soon to Fort Bliss. She added she just wants “him to come home”.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the US government was working with North Korean counterparts to “resolve this incident”. The US-led United Nations Command said the soldier was believed to be in North Korean custody.
“We’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation,” US defence chief Lloyd Austin told a Pentagon news conference, noting he was foremost concerned about the troop’s wellbeing. “This will develop in the next several days and hours, and we’ll keep you posted.”
It was not known whether or how the US and North Korea, which have no diplomatic relations, would hold talks.
As of Wednesday, North Korea’s state media made no mention of the incident.
In the past, Sweden, which has an embassy in Pyongyang, provided consular services for other US nationals detained in North Korea. But its embassy’s diplomatic staff reportedly have not returned to North Korea since the country imposed a COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020 and ordered all foreigners out.
Some observers say King’s case could be used as a tool to exercise leverage.
“They could use this as a bargaining chip and say ‘If you want him back you gonna have to take more troops out of South Korea or get rid of this nuclear consultative group’ or something like that,” Lawrence Korb, former US assistant secretary of defence, told Al Jazeera, referring to the Nuclear Consultative Group where leaders of the US and South Korea laid out plans to strengthen US extended deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threats.
“They obviously have the upper hand – we care about our men and women who serve,” Korb said.
What is going to happen to him?
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said King will likely be tortured.
“It’s very likely that he will be subjected to harsh treatment, especially since he is a member of the US armed forces so the likelihood that he will be tortured, he will face psychological pressure, physical torture, the likelihood of that happening is very high,” Scarlatoiu told Al Jazeera.
Have US citizens been detained in North Korea before?
Yes. Here are five such cases:
- Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was arrested for allegedly removing a political banner from a North Korean hotel, a “crime” for which he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour. Warmbier was detained at the airport as he was leaving the country with a tour group in January 2016 and was paraded in front of reporters in Pyongyang where he sobbed and pleaded for his release, saying he made “the worst mistake of my life”. His release was secured after Joseph Yun, the State Department’s then-special representative for North Korea policy, made a secret trip to Pyongyang. Warmbier arrived home in a coma after nearly 18 months in captivity and died six days later. North Korean officials blamed his condition on medicine they said he took for botulism.
- US-Korean tour operator and missionary Kenneth Bae spent the longest period in North Korean detention of any US citizen arrested there since the Korean War. Bae was arrested in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour on charges of seeking to topple the government. He toiled in a North Korean labour camp from 8am to 6pm, “working on the field, carrying rock, shovelling coal”, he told CNN after his release. He was released two years later after a secret mission to Pyongyang led by then-US intelligence chief James Clapper.
- TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee were detained by North Korean guards in March 2009 while on assignment on the China border reporting on refugees fleeing the impoverished regime. Three months later, they were sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for illegal entry and other offences. Their release was secured when former US President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang on a surprise mission that year. The trip was a major propaganda opportunity for the North, with state media saying Clinton had an “exhaustive conversation” over dinner with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
- Missionary Evan Hunziker swam naked and drunk across the Yalu River from China to North Korea in August 1996, when he was arrested and charged with spying. He was released three months later after US congressman Bill Richardson travelled to Pyongyang. The North Koreans initially demanded $100,000 for Hunziker’s illegal entry into the country but later agreed to free him after his $5,000 hotel bill was paid. On returning, Hunziker praised his North Korean captors for their “beautiful gesture of peace” for releasing him but he was found dead in an apparent suicide a month later.
- Drunk after 10 beers, US soldier Charles Robert Jenkins crossed into the North in 1965 while patrolling the Korean Demilitarized Zone in an attempt to avoid facing combat duty in Vietnam. He quickly regretted his defection but was held for decades, teaching English to North Korean soldiers and appearing in propaganda leaflets and films. He was eventually allowed to leave in 2004 and subsequently spoke out about the dire conditions of life in the North until he died in 2017.