April 20, 2024

North Korea did not respond to the efforts of the United States to discuss the passage of an American soldier across the border

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea was unresponsive Thursday to U.S. efforts to discuss the heavily armed American soldier who crossed the border and its prospects for a quick release are unclear at a time of high military tension and inactive lines of communication.

Pvt. King Traviswho was supposed to be going to Fort Bliss, Texas, after completing a prison sentence in South Korea for an attack, ran into North Korea and on a civilian tour of the border village of Panmunjom on Tuesday. He is the first known American to be detained in North Korea in nearly five years.

“Yesterday the Pentagon reached out to their counterparts in the (North) Korean People’s Army. My understanding is that those communications have not yet been responded to,” Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the US State Department, told reporters Wednesday in Washington.

Miller said the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department are working together to gather information about King’s welfare and whereabouts. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the US government will continue to work to ensure his safety and return to his family.

The reason for the King’s border crossing is unknown. A witness while on the same civilian tour she said that at first she thought the fling was some kind of stunt until she heard an American soldier on patrol yelling at others to try and stop it. But King crossed the line in a second.

King, 23, was serving in South Korea as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division. He could be discharged from the military and face other possible punishments after being convicted of crimes in South Korea.

In February, a court in Seoul fined him 5 million won ($3,950) by convicting him of assaulting an unknown person and damaging a police vehicle in Seoul last October, according to a transcript of the verdict obtained by The Associated Press. The ruling said King was also accused of punching a man at a nightclub in Seoul, although the court dismissed that charge because the victim did not want King punished.

It was not clear how King spent the hours from leaving the airport on Monday until his trip to Panmunjom on Tuesday. The Army realized he was missing when he did not take off from the flight in Texas as expected.

North Korea previously held some Americans arrested on anti-state, espionage and other charges. But no other Americans have been known to be detained since North Korea expelled American Bruce Byron Lowrance in 2018. During the Cold War, propaganda films from North Korea featured a small number of US soldiers who later fled to North Korea.

“North Korea is not going to arrest and release a border crosser because of their strict domestic laws and their desire to discourage outsiders from breaking them. However, the Kim regime has little incentive to detain an American citizen for very long, because that could mean liabilities,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“For Pyongyang, it makes sense to find a way to extract some compensation and then deport an American for unauthorized entry into the country before a remote incident escalates in ways that threaten North Korea’s diplomatic and financial interests,” he said. “At best, the American soldier will return home safely at the cost of some propaganda victory for Pyongyang, and US and North Korean officials will have a chance to resume the dialogue and contacts that have stalled during the pandemic.”

Other experts say North Korea is unlikely to return King easily because he appears to be a soldier who voluntarily fled to North Korea, although many civilian detainees have previously been released after the United States sent high-profile missions to Pyongyang to secure their freedom.

The US and North Korea, which fought during the 1950-53 Korean War, still have no diplomatic ties. Sweden has provided consular services to Americans in previous cases, but Swedish diplomatic staff have reportedly not returned since North Korea ordered foreigners to leave the country at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What I will say is that we here at the State Department have reached out to counterparts in South Korea and Sweden on this issue, including here in Washington,” Miller said.

Jeon Ha-kyu, a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said Thursday that his ministry is sharing related information with the American-led United Nations Command in South Korea, without elaborating.

Currently, there are no known active dialogues between North Korea and the US or South Korea.

King’s case comes as North Korea steps up its criticism of the United States over its recent moves to strengthen its security commitment to South Korea. Earlier this week, the US deployed a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea for the first time in four decades. North Korea later test-fired two missiles with the potential range to reach the South Korean port whether the US. docked submarine.

King’s family members said the soldier may have felt overwhelmed by his potential legal troubles and possible discharge from the military. They described him as a quiet loner who did not drink or smoke and enjoyed reading the Bible.

“I can’t see him doing that on purpose if it was right,” King’s maternal grandfather, Carl Gates, told The Associated Press from his home in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Travis is a good guy. He would never do anything to hurt anyone. And I can’t see him trying to hurt himself.”

Carl Gates said his grandson joined the military three years ago because he wanted to serve his country and because he “wanted to do better for himself.”

King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told reporters outside her home in Racine, Wisconsin, that all she cares about is getting her son home.

“I just want my son back,” she said in a video posted by Milwaukee television station WISN. “Get my son home.”

The King’s grandfather called on his country to help rescue his grandson.

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Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, and Melissa Winder in Kenosha, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.

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