North Korea has claimed that a United States soldier who crossed the border last month did so because he was seeking refuge from “inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” in the US.
The comments, published in state media on Wednesday, are Pyongyang’s first public statement on Travis King, who crossed from South Korea into North Korea on July 18 while on a tourist tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) that separates the two countries.
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North Korea said that King confessed to crossing the border illegally, with the intent to stay in North Korea or in a third country.
“During the investigation, Travis King confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK as he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army,” state news agency KCNA reported, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.
“He also expressed his willingness to seek refugee in the DPRK or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”
KCNA said the 23-year-old was “kept under control by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army” after his crossing and the investigation continues.
The border between the two Koreas is heavily fortified but at the JSA, the frontier is marked only by a low concrete divider and is relatively easy to cross, despite the presence of soldiers on both sides.
US officials have said they believe King crossed the border intentionally and have declined to classify him as a prisoner of war.
King slipped away when he was facing disciplinary hearings in the wake of a drunken pub fight that led to an incident with South Korean police and a spell in a South Korean jail.
The Pentagon said it could not verify King’s comments as reported by KCNA and remains focused on his safe return. It did not address whether it had heard more details from North Korea.
Later on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the US State Department also said it could not verify the comments attributed to King.
“The Department’s priority is to bring Private King home, and we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
King’s uncle, Myron Gates, told ABC News earlier this month that his nephew had experienced racism during his military deployment and, after being held in jail, did not sound like himself.
The US military has been wrestling with how to classify King, who joined the US Army in January 2021.
As an active-duty soldier, he might appear to qualify as a POW, given the US and North Korea technically remain at war. The 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. The Korean Peninsula technically remains at war with the United Nations Command (UNC), providing oversight for the armistice.
But US officials have also said King’s decision to cross into North Korea of his own free will, in civilian attire, appears to have disqualified him from POW status.
July’s incident came as relations between the two Koreas are at one of their lowest points, with diplomacy stalled and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un calling for increased weapons development, including tactical nuclear warheads.
Earlier this month, the UNC said North Korea had “responded” to efforts to discuss the case.