The already tense relationship between the United States and North Korea has taken a complicated turn following a peculiar incident involving a US soldier crossing illegally into the northern peninsula. The soldier in question, Travis King, had been serving a nearly two-month sentence in a South Korean prison for assault.
On July 10, 2023, he was released from custody with the intention of being sent back home to Fort Bliss, Texas. However, instead of complying with the plan, King absconded, leading to a sequence of events that have intensified diplomatic strains between the two nations.
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According to US officials, Travis King was scheduled to return to the United States on Monday and face potential further disciplinary actions, including discharge from the military. Accompanied to the customs area at an airport, King managed to elude authorities and did not board his flight. The specifics of his activities during the intervening hours remain unclear, but it was later discovered that he joined a tour in the border village of Panmunjom.
The situation took a serious turn when, during the tour on Tuesday afternoon, King impulsively ran across the heavily fortified border into North Korea. His unauthorised and unplanned crossing into the country has further complicated the already delicate relations between the United States and North Korea.
As of now, it is believed that Travis King is being held in North Korean custody. This incident has heightened tensions and raised concerns about the potential diplomatic and security implications between the two nations. The US government is likely to be working through diplomatic channels to secure King’s release and address the situation’s repercussions on the already strained bilateral relations.
Who is Travis King?
The 23-year-old soldier served as a cavalry scout in the 1st Armoured Division. Following the notification of King’s family, the army disclosed his identity along with limited information. However, due to the sensitive nature of the situation, several US officials shared additional details on the condition of anonymity.
During his deployment in South Korea, Travis King was designated to serve with the 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, as confirmed by Army spokesperson Bryce Dubee. Additionally, he was administratively attached to the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
King’s military record indicates that he had not been deployed previously. His military awards include routine decorations typically given to soldiers of his rank and experience, which include the National Defence Service Medal, the Korean Defence Service Medal, and the Overseas Service Ribbon.
Assault and South Korean detention
Based on information from US officials, it is reported that King had been held in a designated detention facility under the Status of Forces Agreement with South Korea. This agreement outlines the procedures for processing US service members, their families, and other Defence Department personnel in a foreign country, including their involvement with the local justice system.
As per the summary of the agreement from US Forces Korea, pre-trial confinement is allowed to take place at a US facility, while post-trial confinement is generally conducted in a South Korean prison. However, it is not clear where King was detained during this incident.
South Korean police informed reporters that King had been transferred to US military police following an incident that occurred in September of the previous year. The incident reportedly involved an assault on a South Korean national or nationals. After conducting an investigation, the South Korean authorities transferred King without detention, as the alleged assault was not deemed severe enough to warrant an arrest.
Abduction or wilful crossing?
Before Travis King was identified, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed his primary concern for the soldier’s well-being, confirming that a US soldier had wilfully crossed into North Korea. The spokesperson mentioned that they were closely monitoring and actively investigating the situation. Simultaneously, they were in the process of notifying the soldier’s next of kin about the incident.
The US State Department spokesperson, Matt Miller, also mentioned that the department had not reached out to the North Koreans or any other governments, including China, regarding this matter. The Defence Department was taking the lead on the issue, and the State Department would coordinate with them if further steps were necessary.
In an interview with ABC News, King’s mother expressed her disbelief upon hearing that her son had entered North Korea. Claudine Gates, residing in Racine, Wisconsin, stated, “I can’t imagine Travis doing something like that.”
Gates recounted that the US army informed her on Tuesday, July 18, 2023 morning about her son’s incursion into North Korea. She further revealed that she had last communicated with him “a few days ago” when he informed her of his imminent return to Fort Bliss. Her primary concern is for his safe return, as she stated, “I just want him to come home.”
Possible geopolitical consequences
According to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, the US government is actively engaged in working with North Korean counterparts to find a resolution to the incident involving the detained soldier. The United States, through the US-led United Nations Command, has reason to believe that the soldier is currently in North Korean custody.
US defence chief Lloyd Austin addressed the matter during a Pentagon news conference, stating that they are closely monitoring and investigating the situation. He emphasised that the wellbeing of the troop is their primary concern and assured that updates will be provided as the situation develops in the coming days and hours.
Given that the US and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations, it remains uncertain whether and how they would hold talks regarding this incident.
As of Wednesday, July 19, 2023, North Korea’s state media has made no mention of the soldier’s detention.
In the past, Sweden, with its embassy in Pyongyang, has provided consular services for other US nationals detained in North Korea. However, the Swedish embassy’s diplomatic staff has reportedly not returned to North Korea since the country imposed a COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020 and ordered all foreigners to leave.
Some observers speculate that King’s case might be utilised as a bargaining chip by North Korea to exert leverage in negotiations. Lawrence Korb, a former US assistant secretary of defense, suggested that North Korea could demand concessions from the US, such as withdrawing more troops from South Korea or altering the Nuclear Consultative Group’s plans, which aim to strengthen the US extended deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threats.
Korb further noted that North Korea appears to hold the upper hand in this situation, as the US deeply cares about the safety and wellbeing of its servicemen and women.
In the photo provided, a North Korean guard post on the Korean Demilitaridsed Zone (DMZ) can be seen above a South Korean military fence from the border city of Paju.
According to Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, there is a high likelihood that the detained soldier, King, will face severe mistreatment, particularly considering his status as a member of the US armed forces. Scarlatoiu expressed concerns that King might be subjected to harsh and inhumane treatment, including psychological pressure and physical torture during his captivity in North Korea. The lack of transparency and North Korea’s history of human rights abuses raise serious concerns about the soldier’s wellbeing and safety while in their custody.