SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea did not respond Thursday to questions about a U.S. soldier crossing the heavily armed border amid heightened military tensions and inactive lines of communication.
Pvt. Travis King, who was headed to Fort Bliss, Texas after serving a prison sentence for the attack in South Korea, ran into North Korea on Tuesday while visiting civilians in the border village of Panmunjom. He is the first known American in North Korea in five years.
“Yesterday, the Pentagon met with the (North) Korean People’s Army counterparts. My understanding is that those communications have not been responded to yet,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
Miller said the White House, Pentagon and State Department are working together to gather information about King’s safety and whereabouts. White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said the US government will continue to work to ensure his safety and return him to his family.
King’s reason for crossing the border is unknown. A witness on the same civilian tour initially thought his streak was something until she heard an American soldier on patrol yelling for others to stop. But the king crossed the line in a matter of seconds.
King, 23, was serving as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division in South Korea. After being accused of crimes in South Korea, they can be dismissed from the army and face other punishments.
Last October, a Seoul court fined him 5 million won ($3,950) for assaulting an unidentified man and damaging a police car, according to a transcript obtained by The Associated Press. The court dismissed the case because the victim did not want King to be punished, the ruling said.
It was not clear how King spent his hours until he left the airport on Monday and joined a tour of Panmunjom on Tuesday. He learned that the trooper was missing when he failed to get off the plane in Texas as expected.
North Korea has previously imprisoned several Americans on charges of treason, espionage and other charges. But North Korea kidnapped the American Bruce Byron Lowran in 2011.
“North Korea does not want to ‘catch and release’ cross-border travelers because of its strict domestic laws and its desire to prevent outsiders from violating them. However, the Kim regime has little incentive to detain an American citizen long-term, as doing so could result in liability, said Leif-Erik Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“It makes sense to find a way to pay some compensation to Pyongyang and then deport an American without permission before an isolated incident escalates in a way that threatens North Korea’s diplomatic and financial interests. In the best-case scenario, the U.S. military will return home safely at the cost of some propaganda victory for Pyongyang, and U.S. and North Korean officials will have an opportunity to resume talks and relations that stalled during the outbreak.”
Other experts say North Korea will not easily return the king as a soldier who voluntarily defected to North Korea, although several former US civilian prisoners have been freed since the United States sent high-level missions to Pyongyang to secure their freedom.
In the year The US and North Korea, which fought during the 1950-53 Korean War, still do not have diplomatic relations. Sweden has provided consular services to Americans in the past, but Swedish diplomatic staff have reportedly not returned since North Korea ordered foreigners to leave the country at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I mean, we’ve discussed this with our South Korean and Swedish counterparts, including here in Washington, South Korea and Sweden,” Miller said.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesman Jeon Ha-kyu said Thursday that the ministry is sharing information related to South Korea with the US-led United Nations, without giving further details.
Currently, there are no known, active talks between North Korea and the US or South Korea.
King’s case comes as North Korea steps up its criticism of the United States for its recent moves to strengthen its security commitment to South Korea. Earlier this week, the United States deployed a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in four decades. North Korea later tested two missiles that could have hit the United States at a South Korean port. The submarine is locked.
Members of the royal family said the soldier may be worried about his legal troubles and possible dismissal from the army. They described him as a quiet man who did not drink or smoke and enjoyed reading the Bible.
“If he’s in his right mind, I can’t see him doing it on purpose,” King’s maternal grandfather, Carl Gates, told The Associated Press from his home in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Travis is a good guy. He wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody. And I don’t see him trying to hurt himself.”
Carl Gates said his grandson joined the military three years ago because he wanted to serve his country and “want to do something better for himself.”
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told reporters outside her home in Racine, Wisconsin, that she was thinking about bringing her son home.
“I want my son back,” she said in a video posted by Milwaukee television station WISN. “Take my son home.”
The king’s grandfather asked his country to help save his grandson.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin and Melissa Winder in Kenosha, Wisconsin contributed to this report.