A US soldier is in North Korean custody. What happens now?
Travis King joins a list of Americans held by North Korea—Americans who have had mostly bad experiences.
A U.S. soldier who was facing disciplinary action crossed the border into North Korea, which has detained him, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The United States is “working with our [Korean People’s Army] counterparts to resolve this incident,” Col. Isaac Taylor, U.S. Forces Korea public affairs spokesperson, said in a statement.
The soldier, Private Travis King, was originally assigned to 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, according to a statement from Army spokesperson Bryce Dubee. King “is currently administratively attached to 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. His awards include the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Defense Service Medal and Overseas Service Ribbon,” according to the statement.
King had just been released from a South Korean prison on assault charges and was awaiting transfer back to Texas’s Fort Bliss to face additional disciplinary actions, the Associated Press reported. King was at the airport when he “joined a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom [and then] he ran across the border,” AP wrote.
The last detention of a U.S. national by the North Korean regime was Bruce Byron Lowrance in 2018. The North Koreans said Lowrance was the victim of a CIA mind-manipulation plot and released him back to the United States after about a month in custody. “Since the mid-1990s, there [have] been about 20 Americans detained for various reasons, including alleged espionage, dissemination of religious information, and ‘disrespectful’ tourist behavior,” CSIS observed in a note Tuesday.
U.S. nationals captured by North Korean forces don’t always fare as well as Lowrance. In January 2016, North Korean authorities detained an Ohio college student named Otto Warmbier—who was part of a tour group—for stealing a propaganda poster from a North Korean hotel, and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. He was returned to the United States in 2017 in a comatose condition and died shortly after due to extensive medical issues he developed in North Korean custody.
In terms of what might happen to King, the U.S. Army soldier not yet accused of any crimes against North Korea, there is little precedent save the saga of Charles Robert Jenkins.
In 1965, Jenkins was a U.S. Army sergeant serving in South Korea. One drunken night, he crossed over the demilitarized zone line to avoid service in Vietnam, according to an obituary in the New York Times. After a stint as a prisoner —during which he was subjected to beatings and extreme cold—he was made a North Korean citizen in 1975, and enjoyed a slightly elevated status as something of a trophy. He was allowed to marry, have a family, and keep a few chickens and a vegetable garden until he was eventually permitted to leave the country in 2004. The United States did prosecute him for desertion, and he was sentenced to a month in jail.
But while he fared better than other Americans in North Korea, he wrote in his autobiography that he “suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings, and mental torture to frequently make me wish I was dead.”
King will likely experience a different fate, said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, where she directs 38 North, a news and analysis site focused on North Korea. In fact, she said there’s a good chance the North Korean government will return him.
“This is not a person who was detained in North Korea for some perceived criminal activity, but someone attempting to enter the country, seemingly to escape punishments in the U.S. and not for some kind of ‘expose North Korea’ rationale—from what we have learned so far at least. The question here is whether North Korea will admit him or not, and that will likely depend on whether Pyongyang sees propaganda value in admitting him,” she said.
In terms of next steps the U.S. government might take, she said, “It is unclear how responsive the North Koreans are at this moment. In the past, additional efforts would be channeled through the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, who normally resides in Pyongyang. However, he has not been allowed to return to Pyongyang yet (having left during the pandemic). Hopefully this can be resolved soon though, so as to not exacerbate already tense US-DPRK relations.”
King's capture occurred at the same time as a meeting of the Nuclear Consultative Group, a bilateral exchange aimed to strengthen deterrence against North Korean nuclear threats.
CSIS noted: “This incident draws public attention away from this important set of meetings that are designed to build confidence in U.S. security commitments to Korea. At the same time, having top-level White House officials on the ground in Korea could help affect a speedy resolution to the detention (although North Korea has a tendency to hold Americans for weeks, if not months, of detention before releasing them with a coerced apology).”
On Tuesday, North Korea also fired a ballistic missile into the East Sea, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.