August 2023

On the run to North Korea

A US soldier has fled across the border to the North Korea after being released from prison for attacking South Koreans. Duncan Bartlett  considers what can be done to get him out

Travis King, a US soldier, who crossed into North Korea in July, has created a huge predicament for his commanders and diplomats in the State Department.

How should they attempt to negotiate his release, given that the US has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang?

They could ask for help from the South Koreans. However, North Korea destroyed its joint liaison office with the South in 2020. Since then, communication has been almost non-existent.

Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, brands South Korea as ‘treasonous’. The North continues with its launches of ballistic missiles while inflammatory propaganda relishes the idea of an attack on Seoul.

Private King was among 28,500 American soldiers deployed in South Korea. He entered the North by crossing the border within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has separated North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Several reports say he was laughing as he ran.

The most plausible theory on his motivation is that he was attempting to run from personal problems. Reuters reports that Private King was found guilty of two counts of assault and fined by a South Korean court for, among other things, damaging a police car. He was due to be deported but according to one report, managed to avoid being marched onto a plane at Incheon air base because he claimed to have forgotten his passport.

Private Travis King
Fate unknown: Private Travis King

Diplomats from South Korea and the United States are trying to ascertain information on his whereabouts. Lieutenant General Andrew Harrison, a British Army officer serving as deputy commander of the multinational force in the demilitarised zone, told the media that the United Nations Command and North Korea have been discussing the case. General Harrison said that the conversations are ‘conducted through a mechanism established under the Korean War armistice,’ according to Reuters.

Private King’s detention comes as tensions between North Korea and the United States are running particularly high.

In July, a submarine called the USS Kentucky docked in the South Korean port of Busan, where it was visited by President Yoon Suk-Yeol. The submarine could carry up to twenty Trident ballistic missiles and 80 nuclear warheads, according to the Maritime Executive website, although as a matter of policy, the United States Navy does not confirm whether any specific vessel is carrying nuclear weapons.

‘Projecting strength right now is important in terms of deterrence’

In a joint statement, the governments of the United States and South Korea said that the goal of sending the submarine is to show that ‘any nuclear attack by the DPRK (North Korea) against the ROK (South Korea) will be met with a swift, overwhelming, and decisive response.’

Asked about this on ABC News, the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in the United States, Michael McCaul, insisted that the submarine’s deployment was necessary.

‘Projecting strength right now is important in terms of deterrence. It’s the first time in four decades we’ve had this deployment,’ he said.

Congressman McCaul went on to describe North Korea and China as ‘adversaries’ of the United States and claimed both are displaying aggression. Mr McCaul led a bipartisan delegation to Taiwan in May, which included a discussion of how the US could strengthen its economic and defence relationship with the island.

The case of the missing American soldier is being followed closely in Japan

‘When I was there, China encircled Taiwan with an armada of ten battleships and seventy fighter jets, to threaten and intimidate us, and then I was sanctioned, just to illustrate how aggressive their posture is now,’ Mr McCaul told interviewer Martha Raddatz.

The case of the missing American soldier is being followed closely in Japan. People there are asking if it could have a bearing on a project which is very precious to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida: the return of several Japanese citizens who were abducted during the 1970s and 1980s.

Joe Biden recognises the emotional and political significance of this issue. In 2022, he met with the families of the abductees in Tokyo and called on North Korea to ‘right this historic wrong’. Furthermore, when Prime Minister Kishida visited Washington in January 2023, President Biden reaffirmed his commitment to ‘the immediate resolution of the abductions issue,’ according to the White House.

Japan has also asked for help from South Korea but the problem remains deadlocked. The Japanese abductees have been in North Korea for many decades and some may have perished there. Concern over their unhappy fate may provide impetus to efforts to extract Private King as soon as possible.

SHOW OF STRENGTH: USS Kentucky docked in the South Korean port of Busan

Professor Victor Cha from Georgetown University, who studies the Koreas, told National Public Radio in the US that ‘eventually, the North Koreans will respond to US inquiries, and will charge him with some sort of alleged espionage or some sort of trumped-up charges. And then the question will be, what does the Biden administration do to get him out?’

Recalling events in the 1980s, Professor Cha said: ‘In the past, the United States has had to send high-level officials to go and extract these people. Former President Carter, former President Clinton have gone to North Korea to bring back detained Americans. And so that might happen, but it may be months before we get to that point.’

President Biden of the United States and President Yoon of Korea recently pledged to ‘leverage the diplomatic resources of the two countries to peaceably achieve crucial, strategic outcomes.’

Neither leader realised that their nations would need to work together to persuade an adversary to release an American soldier who chose to run, laughing, into the kingdom of Kim Jong-un.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs