The media claimed on July 18, 2023, that US soldier Travis King crossed into DPRK territory unlawfully and voluntarily while on a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) and that he is currently in North Korean custody. Vasily Matuzok, a MGIMO student, fled from north to south in a strikingly identical manner on November 23, 1984. Then, however, the incident ended in a shootout with casualties on both sides.
Assuring that the soldier intentionally crossed the border into North Korea, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that he was “absolutely first and foremost concerned” for the soldier’s well-being. “We’re closely monitoring and investigating the situation, and working to notify the soldier’s next of kin, and engaging to address this incident.” President Joe Biden was also briefed on the incident.
Where it happened
The Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea’s Joint Security Area is the area that is most easily recognized, and tours of the area are available to the public and run by the Unified Command. Neither UN command personnel nor North Korean soldiers are permitted to cross the military boundary separating North and South Korea.
While the DMZ has become one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders, the Joint Security Area is different: as of 2018, representatives from both sides do not carry weapons there, and crossing the military demarcation line, which serves as the de facto border between North and South Korea, does not necessitate passing through any physical barrier. The border is merely a thin line on the ground, and crossing it takes only one step, as former US President Donald Trump did when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2019.
After being halted during the COVID-19 epidemic, the JSA tour program was reintroduced in October 2020. Due to stringent security checks, foreign participants gain permission within three days of applying; Korean citizens require an average of two to seven weeks.
Who’s Travis King?
The 23 year old African American was registered on the JSA tour as a civilian, despite having to be sent back to the United States to face disciplinary action.
Travis King joined the US Army in January 2021 and was assigned to the First Armored Division. He was released from a South Korean jail on July 10 after serving a two-month term for assault. He’s also had run-ins with the local law in the past. On September 25, 2022, King was accused of attacking a Korean national at a nightclub in western Seoul, but he was not penalized since the victim stated that he did not want the soldier punished.
On February 8, King was fined 5 million won ($3,943) by a Seoul court on charges including damaging state property. According to police investigations, he repeatedly kicked the back door of a police car in Mapo district of Seoul on October 8, 2022, causing 584,000 won in damage. Police detained King at the scene, but he refused to give them any personal information when they asked for it and instead kicked the door of the police car while yelling profanity against Koreans and the Korean army. He was detained to 48 days in a South Korean penitentiary from May 24 to July 10, 2023, as decided by the court because he failed to pay the fine.
After serving his time in South Korea, King was to face US punishment at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he would face further disciplinary action and dismissal from the service. King was escorted to the airport, but he went through the checkpoint alone because military police officers were not allowed to accompany him. King arrived at the gate but walked to an American Airlines official, claimed he had lost his passport, and was able to leave the departure area, after which King traveled to Panmunjom the next day on a bus organized by a private tour company, already in civilian clothes.
It is not revealed how this occurred because it begs several uncomfortable questions. Why had an airline official not transferred the soldier to the American military police who escorted King to the airport? Why did the UN Command approve a US soldier to participate in this trip despite his problematic behavior in the past? Where did he spend the night and how did he get a change of clothes?
Witnesses said that King was alone and kept to himself throughout the tour. He hurried over the border to the North Korean side after purchasing a hat from a gift shop. It all happened very quickly. One witness said, “I assumed initially he had a mate filming him in some kind of really stupid prank or stunt, like a TikTok.” He barely had to run approximately ten meters, so the guides and 10 soldiers from the United Nations Command (UNC) and the Republic of Korea Army were unable to stop him. The American was apprehended by North Korean soldiers as soon as he crossed the border.
How the talks are going
Until this point, most reporting on this subject have generally stated that “the military is working on it.”
“The state department has not reached out to the North Koreans or other governments,”Matthew Miller, Spokesperson for the US Department of State, stated on July 19. “It is our understanding that the Pentagon has reached out to their counterparts in the DPRK.” Miller reiterated that the US service member has “willfully, on his own volition” crossed the inter-Korean border but when asked if King was trying to defect to North Korea, added that the matter remains under investigation
On July 20, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic CommunicationsJohn Kirby hinted at an apparent lack of communication with North Korea: “We don’t know the conditions in which he (King) is living right now and it’s the not knowing that is deeply concerning to us, and we are trying as best as we can to get as much information as we can.”
Kirby pointed out that the US is doing everything it can to bring him back safely, saying: “Of course we are concerned about his well-being. This is not a country that is known for humane treatment of Americans, or, frankly, anybody else for that matter.”
On July 24, the United Nations Command officially confirmed that it had begun negotiations with North Korea over Travis King, but details have not yet been released, and Matthew Miller indicated on the same day that the United States had received no substantive response from North Korea.
On August 1, the Pentagon press-secretary said he could “confirm that the DPRK has responded to United Nations Command (UNC),” “but I don’t have any substantial progress to read out.” Next day a state department spokesperson again noted that North Korea had yet to offer any substantive response to requests from United Nations Command (UNC) to confirm the safety of a US service member in its custody.
On August 3, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “The United States is working to learn more about the safety of a US service member who crossed into North Korea last month, but the reclusive state has yet to offer any response.”
While the sides remain silent, experts try to predict, noting that the DPRK-US ties remain frozen at the moment, but the need to resolve the issue “raises cautious expectations for direct diplomatic reengagement between Washington and Pyongyang.” According to Nam Chang-hee, professor of international politics at Inha University, if the North uses the incident to revive engagement and collaboration on the issue, Washington will regard it as a highly welcoming gesture. On the other hand, relations could deteriorate further if Pyongyang uses the incident for propaganda purposes.
On the third hand, the incident occurred at a very tense time in terms of geopolitics, and the chances of King’s imminent release are slim.
Some believe that, as in the past, Washington may consider sending a high-ranking former and current official to the DPRK. Former US President Bill Clinton visited the North in 2009 to free two detained American female journalists, as well as three other Americans—Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim, and Kim Dong-chul—who were released from detention in May 2018 after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with the then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
King’s current situation and whether he might be regarded as a prisoner of war, for example, is another intriguing matter. So far, the US Department of Defense has described the soldier’s present status as “AWOL,” which could indicate that King is not covered by the Geneva Convention’s safeguards for prisoners of war, something human rights organizations are attempting to avoid. According to national security law expert Rachel E. VanLandingham, King would have benefited from being categorized as a prisoner of war, even if it can be seen as a stretch of legal standpoint. “It provides a much clearer, very structured framework for exactly how they’re to treat him down to the number of cigarettes a day they’re required to give him if he asks.”
Given that the US and North Korea are still formally at war, King would qualify as a prisoner of war as an active duty soldier. But King’s decision to enter North Korea of his own free will, in civilian clothes, strips him of that status. According to Geoffrey Corn, a military law expert at Texas Tech University School of Law, it would be difficult for the US to claim that King was a prisoner of war at the time because there was no ongoing hostilities on the peninsula.
What does the DPRK have in store for guys like Private Travis King?
This is the first confirmed case since US citizen Bruce Byron Lowrance was detained in North Korea after crossing the border into China in 2018.
In the Western media, King’s future has been compared to the fate of Kenneth Bae, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller but the author recalls that in each of the three cases there were grounds for conviction, and they were NOT escape attempts. Miller later acknowledged wanting to experience North Korean jail life in order to covertly research the country’s human rights situation. Kenneth Bae was engaged in covert missionary activity and trafficked “seditious literature,” and Fowle “accidentally” placed a Bible in a Chŏngjin nightclub. Otto Wombier’s infamous case bears even less resemblance to King’s situation.
One must keep in mind the comparable histories of other American Army soldiers who fled to the North. For instance, Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins deserted his position in South Korea in 1965 and crossed the demilitarized zone; he later made appearances as a Yankee villain in both different propaganda pamphlets and motion pictures. It is alleged that he did this to evade being deployed to Vietnam.
In 1980, Jenkins married 21-year-old Hitomi Soga, a Japanese student believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents in 1978. When she was allowed to return to Japan in 2002, he pined for her and in 2004, Jenkins was also allowed to leave North Korea and reunite with his wife. He turned himself in to American military authorities in Japan, where he received a 25-day prison term. He died in Japan in 2017.
Joseph T. White, who crossed the border during his night patrol in 1982, is another example. North Korean authorities wrote to White’s family to inform them that he had passed away three years later from drowning in the Chongchon River.
What is happening with King now? According to Jonathan Corrado, a director of policy for The Korea Society, North Korea is currently interrogating King for any military-related information. Will North Korea utilize King as a bargaining chip or a means of propaganda? King’s low military rank does not make him a knowledgeable person, but if he decides to stay in North Korea out of fear of the punishment he will receive in the United States, he will be portrayed as a “freedom chooser” in propaganda. Once Pyongyang makes up its mind, they will respond.
Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank, believes that King could be deported. Because of his criminal history, which was extensively documented in the media, and the fact that he was a low-ranking member of the military, it is likely that he did not have access to any significant intelligence data. “Depending on the levels of his knowledge and cooperation, he could be detained there for a while, but probably not for too long,” said the official.
Kim Duck-soo, deputy director of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, said North Korea generally does not welcome foreigners who have entered the country illegally, as King did, and could theoretically extradite him on the basis that his trial in the United States may not be complete. After all, Pyongyang makes the same justifications for claiming back its own defectors.
Oh Gyeong-seob, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank, said, “Since he was not abducted, the US cannot impose additional sanctions on the regime or even criticize it… He is now dependent on North Korea’s leadership to decide if he can stay there.” Washington still needs to proclaim that Private King should be treated humanely in accordance with international law for the time being.
The motives for the soldier’s escape and his fate are still unclear, but the most likely reason is King’s generally irresponsible behavior. As a former Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) soldier stated, “a lot of US soldiers deployed here are relatively young and less experienced. And due to the emotional stress of being stationed far away from home, some of them ended up causing trouble involving alcohol and violence.” Something will become obvious when King speaks up, stating his reasons for fleeing and whether he wants to remain in the DPRK, but for the time being, refrain from singing about how “the black soldier chose socialism” as some anti-American Russian commentators have already done.
However, pro-Western commentators in the Russian Federation and elsewhere have already made the argument that an African American brig rat cannot be compared to those who fled from the DPRK in search of freedom. But let’s face it, a large portion of North Korean career defectors’ histories follow the same pattern of being wanted by the law. Just think of at least Shin Dong-hyuk, whose book was quoted a lot until he turned out to be a child rapist who made up most of his biography.
This story will be resolved someday, and the way it will be resolved may well be a marker of US-DPRK relations at this crucial juncture. The author will undoubtedly tell about it, but for the time being, he has frozen in anticipation of events.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”