On Friday, new information surfaced that may help explain why a 23-year-old private in the United States Army disappeared into North Korea earlier this week. An official from the United States verifies that Private Travis King did not show up for his daily formation on September 4, 2022, and when contacted outside the base, he said he “refused to return to post or America.”
King was stationed in Camp Bonifas, a cavalry outpost in northwest South Korea at the DMZ’s southern terminus at the time. Officials say that as a scout, King would have known the dangers of venturing beyond the DMZ. Uijeongbu, a community around 25 miles southeast of Camp Bonifas, is where King was eventually situated.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first public comments regarding King on Friday as well, addressing at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado. “We are very concerned of course about his well-being,” Blinken said. “We’d like to know his whereabouts. We have communicated to North Korea seeking that information. I don’t have anything more at this point.”
The tweet below verifies the news:
North Korea has not yet responded to the mystery surrounding the decision of a U.S. soldier, Pvt. Travis King, to flee north across the inter-Korean border on Tuesday, and it may not comment on the case for days, or even months. https://t.co/ZOVEGzt6MD
— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 20, 2023
When asked if there was a chance that King might be tortured, Blinken stated, “there are certainly concerns based on what we have seen in the past and the way North Korea has treated those it has detained.” U.S. authorities are looking for information about his whereabouts and health, as well as the circumstances surrounding his border crossing.
“We are grateful for the outpouring of support and concern for our son, Travis King. At this time, we request privacy as we work toward our son’s safe return,” said a statement issued Friday by King’s family. “Our family will not be conducting media interviews, and we would appreciate your cooperation in giving us space and time as a family.”
On Thursday, the Pentagon revealed that Army counterintelligence officials were looking into reports that King had dashed across the border between South and North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone. According to reports, he was escorted to the airport in Seoul on Monday in preparation for his departure flight.
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Upon his return to Texas, he would be facing “pending administrative separation actions for foreign conviction,” according to a U.S. official. An official stated that he had been in detention for almost a month due to an altercation with locals. Pyongyang has been stonewalling information requests, which has hampered operations to date.
Although many organizations and middlemen have tried to contact the North Korean government regarding King, they all report hearing nothing back. The North Korean state media has also been unusually silent.
White House spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday that they were “still doing everything we can to try to find out his whereabouts, his well-being, and his condition” and that they made it “clear” that they wanted to see him returned safely to the United States and to his family as soon as possible.
Despite their best efforts, “we just don’t have anything,” he admitted. According to one American official, King was promptly whisked away in a van upon his arrival in North Korea. However, the Pentagon said they have found no evidence to support the theory that the soldier coordinated his passage with North Korean authorities.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller was asked on Thursday if they were concerned for King’s safety, and he responded that the treatment of other American citizens in Pyongyang’s custody in the past was grounds for concern.
“Certainly, I think we would always have concern given the treatment by North Koreans of past detained individuals — we would have that concern and that’s why, one of the reasons why, we are reaching out to ask for more information about his well-being,” he said. As a result of the Biden administration, contact between the countries has deteriorated, but such requests continue to go unmet.
The United States has repeatedly tried to talk to the hermit country of North Korea about nuclear proliferation but has received no answer. “There is not consistent communication. There is a severe lack of communication between our countries,” Miller added.
North Korea may be playing for time, according to Anthony Ruggiero, senior director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs. “They’re probably taking the time to speak with [King] and see what to do next,” Ruggiero said.
Pyongyang has disregarded U.S. and Swedish (America’s diplomatic liaison in North Korea) efforts to contact Americans jailed in the country for weeks at a time in other situations. According to Ruggiero, Pyongyang may try to spin this recent episode in its favor if it believes it can leverage its possession of the American soldier diplomatically.
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According to Ruggiero, if that’s the case, the country might be more willing to talk to American officials. “I think you’re likely to see that the North Koreans want to talk to an American official as directly as possible,” he said. The release of American detainees was authorized by Kim Jong Il, the father of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, during visits by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
However, Ruggiero and other experts believe that the Biden administration will be hesitant to expend substantial political capital to secure the freedom of a soldier who escaped while facing disciplinary action, even if direct contact is established between the United States and North Korea.
Ruggiero speculated that North Korea would decide to release King in a similar fashion to how they released American Bruce Byron Lowrance, who had entered North Korea in 2018, one month later. Lowrance’s release had helped pave the way for the first summit between then-President Trump and Kim Jong Un. “The North Koreans may believe that this is more headache than it’s worth,” Ruggiero said.
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