SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Wednesday fired short-range missiles at its latest weapons display, but remained silent about a U.S. soldier crossing the heavily fortified border into Korea.
More than half a day after the soldier entered North Korea on a visit to the border village of Panmunjom, there was no word on the fate of Private 2nd Class Travis King, the first American to be detained in North Korea for the first time in five years. The North’s missile launch early Wednesday was seen as a protest against the US nuclear-armed submarine’s deployment to South Korea the previous day and was likely linked to the King’s border crossing.
“It is clear that North Korea can use the military for propaganda in the short term and then as a bargaining chip in the medium to long term,” said Yang Moo Jin, president of the University of North Korea Studies in South Korea. .
King, 23, was a cavalry scout with the 1st Infantry Division who served nearly two months in a South Korean prison following the attack. He was released on July 10 and was being sent home to Fort Bliss, Texas, on Monday, where he could have faced further military discipline and been discharged from the service.
He was escorted through customs but left the airport before boarding the plane. It was not clear how he spent his hours until he joined the Panmunjom tour and ran across the border on Tuesday afternoon. After the king’s family was notified, the army released his name and some information. But several US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the seriousness of the case, provided more details.
At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed that King is now in North Korean custody.
“We are closely monitoring and investigating the situation,” said Austin, whose top concern was the safety of the troops. “This will develop over the next several days and hours, and we will keep you posted.”
It is unclear whether King will be released early, as some observers say North Korea could use him as a propaganda tool or to win diplomatic concessions from the United States.
The US-led United Nations Command is believed to be under North Korean control, and the commander is working with his North Korean counterparts to resolve the issue.
Since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, more than 30,000 North Koreans have emigrated to South Korea to escape political oppression and economic hardship.
Panmunjom, a 248-km-long (154-mile) demilitarized zone, has been jointly controlled by the United Nations Command and North Korea since it was created at the end of the Korean War. There has been occasional bloodshed there, but it has become a destination for diplomacy and tourism.
Panmunjom, known for its blue huts on the concrete slabs that line the border, draws visitors from both sides to see the last frontier of the Cold War. There are no civilians in Panmunjom. North and South Korean soldiers clashed as tourists took pictures on either side.
As South Korea restricts gatherings to curb the spread of Covid-19, tours to the southern part of the village are reported to have attracted around 100,000 visitors. The visits continued in full last year.
In the year In November 2017, North Korean soldiers fired 40 rounds at one of their comrades running south. The soldier was hit five times before he was found under a pile of leaves south of Panmunjom. He survived and is now in South Korea.
The most famous incident at Panmunjom occurred in August 1976, when two US Army officers were killed by North Korean soldiers wielding axes. US officers were sent to cut down a tree blocking the view at the checkpoint. The attack prompted Washington to fly nuclear-capable B-52 bombers into the DMZ to intimidate North Korea.
A few American soldiers who went to North Korea during the Cold War, including Charles Jenkins, who left his army post in South Korea and fled across the DMZ in 1965. He appeared in North Korean propaganda films and married a Japanese nursing student who was abducted from Japan by North Korean agents. In the year He died in Japan in 2017.
In recent years, some American civilians have been imprisoned in North Korea for espionage, subversion and other anti-national activities, but have been released after the United States sent a major mission to secure their freedom.
In May 2018, North Korea briefly released three American prisoners who flew back to the United States with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Later in 2018, North Korea said it had expelled American Bruce Byron Lawrence. Since his removal, there have been no reports of other Americans detained in North Korea prior to Tuesday’s incident.
Their freedom contrasted sharply with the fate of American university student Otto Warmbier, who died in 2017 days after being released from a coma in North Korea after 17 months in prison.
The United States, South Korea and others have accused North Korea of using foreign prisoners to undermine a diplomatic deal. After being released, some foreigners said their confessions were coerced while in North Korean prisons.
Shawn Timon, managing partner at Tully Rinkee, a law firm specializing in military legal matters, said it will depend on the North Korean leadership to determine if King is fleeing political persecution or persecution and trying to present himself as a legitimate defector. He can stay.
He said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could decide the king’s fate.
“It’s going to be what their leadership wants, what they want to do,” Timmons said.
Cope reports from Washington. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.