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A US soldier has “willfully” crossed into North Korea. Here’s what we know.

North Korea commented publicly on his crossing for the first time this week.

A two-lane blacktop road with a sign in Korean on a barricade beside it.
Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on July 19, 2023 in Paju, South Korea. 
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

On Wednesday, North Korea commented publicly for the first time about a US soldier who made an unauthorized crossing into the country roughly a month ago. In the statement, they claimed that he sought refuge there due to racism and poor conditions he was experiencing in the US Army.

Private Second Class Travis King, a 23-year-old soldier, “illegally intruded into the territory of the DPRK” on July 18, reads the statement from the Korean Central News Agency, a state-run service. “During the investigation ... 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.”

King entered North Korea after abandoning a flight he was supposed to take back to the US in July. At the time, he reportedly left the airport, joined a civilian tour of the demilitarized zone between the two countries, and ran across the border. The KCNA statement did not provide many details about King’s current condition beyond a description of his alleged motivations.

“[He] expressed his willingness to seek refugee in the DPRK or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society,” the statement reads.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has previously said that King crossed into North Korea “willfully and without authorization” and was in “DPRK custody.” King’s decision to enter North Korea comes in the wake of disciplinary action he faced for damaging a police car in South Korea. King was due to fly back to Texas, where he would likely have faced additional consequences from the military, when he crossed into North Korea.

The situation has fueled concerns that North Korea could use King’s detention for leverage, with national security experts noting that it could be used for propaganda purposes.

Austin has said that his central focus at the moment is King’s welfare and that the DOD is “closely monitoring and investigating the situation.” The United Nations Command, which oversees the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, has also stated that it is “working with our (North) Korean People’s Army counterparts to resolve this incident.”

According to CNN, US officials have been asking about King’s condition and hadn’t received a substantial update from North Korea as of last week. The broader situation could force the US into rare talks with North Korea and is likely to complicate an already tense relationship between the two countries.

Who is Travis King, the US soldier in North Korea?

King reportedly was involved in altercations in Seoul that led to his being detained by local police in October 2022. Ahead of this arrest, he is said to have punched another individual and damaged a police car, and was ultimately ordered to pay a fine after pleading guilty to the charges he faced.

King spent nearly 50 days in a South Korean detention facility after facing assault charges related to this incident. He was scheduled to fly back to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced more disciplinary consequences, but left the airport after going through security. At that point, King joined a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area, which includes a set of buildings contained in the 150-mile demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. During that tour, he reportedly left the group and ran across the border.

“I thought it was a bad joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realized it wasn’t a joke, and then everybody reacted and things got crazy,” a member of the tour told CBS News.

King’s mother, Claudine Gates, has expressed shock about the situation, and told ABC: “I can’t see Travis doing anything like that.” A spokesperson for King’s family, Jonathan Franks, told CNN that Gates was pleading with North Korea to treat her son “humanely” and that she’d be “grateful for a phone call from him.” King’s family has also previously spoken about racism that he had experienced during his time in the Army.

What happens now? And what impact could Travis King have on US foreign policy?

Austin, in a July briefing, said he was “foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop and so we will remain focused on this.” He has also said that the US has done outreach to North Korean military officials on the subject. According to Reuters, the UN Command has spoken over a hotline with North Korean soldiers about King.

This incident comes as tensions between the two countries have been high as the US has deployed a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea, and as North Korea has tested ballistic missiles in recent weeks.

Experts told Reuters that North Korea could attempt to use King’s return as leverage for concessions, but that it’s more likely to use King’s detainment as propaganda that tries to paint the US in a weak light.

“King is being interrogated by North Korea officials to ascertain if he is a spy or some other type of threat,” Wellesley political science professor emerita Katharine Moon told Vox. “Pyongyang is likely to use this case as a way to pressure the US and its allies to bend on sanctions and reduce what the DPRK considers as military threats to the regime — most recently, the docking of a nuclear-capable US submarine in South Korea.”

Historically, US soldiers — whether prisoners or defectors — have received unique treatment in North Korea, Reuters’s Josh Smith writes: “When a U.S. soldier defects, North Korea has to create a security and surveillance team for them, and arrange an interpreter, a private vehicle, driver and lodging, [former North Korean diplomat Tae Yong-ho] said.” From there, the government usually tries to capitalize on the prisoner for propaganda including in material like films.

Have Americans willingly gone to North Korea before?

King is the first American to be taken into North Korean custody in five years.

Most recently, Bruce Byron Lowrance was held by North Korea in 2018 after he crossed into the country from China. He was detained for one month and released. Prior to that, Otto Warmbier was detained in 2016 during a visit with a tour group and charged for allegedly trying to take a propaganda poster.

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, but returned to the US 17 months later after experiencing a severe neurological injury during his time in North Korea. US authorities have said he was beaten during his time in North Korea and Warmbier passed away shortly following his return.

According to historian Erik Scott, there have been a handful of US soldiers who have defected to North Korea in the past. The last case was Joseph White in 1982, during which he denounced the US and lauded North Korean leaders. White reportedly died in a swimming accident in 1985.

Update, August 16, 12:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on July 19 and has been updated to include a statement from North Korean state media.

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