Accessibility links

Breaking News

US: No North Korea Response on US Soldier Who Ran Across Border

FILE - U.S. Army soldier Travis King appears in this unknown location, undated photo obtained by Reuters.

United States officials said Wednesday North Korea has yet to respond to their attempts to discuss the fate of an American soldier who dashed across the Koreas’ heavily militarized border, even as he had been ordered to return to the U.S. to face possible discipline and discharge from the military.

For unknown reasons, Private 2nd Class Travis King ran into North Korea while on a civilian tour of the Demilitarized Zone on Tuesday, a day after he was supposed to leave for a military base in the U.S. King, 23, had been released from a South Korean prison last week after serving nearly two months for assault.

The U.S. State Department said that Pentagon officials attempted without success to reach counterparts in the North Korean People’s Army. Swedish diplomatic officials have in the past provided consular services for Americans in dealing with North Korea, but reportedly have not returned to the country since Pyongyang ordered foreigners out of the country at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. also can reach North Korea via a hotline at its border with South Korea at the U.S.-led U.N. Command in Panmunjom — known as the "pink phone."

Currently, there are no known, active dialogues between North Korea and the U.S. or South Korea.

The U.S. and North Korea fought during the 1950-53 Korean War and are still technically at war since that conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. They have no diplomatic ties.

One woman on the tour with King said she initially thought his sprint across the border was some kind of stunt until she heard an American soldier on patrol shouting for others to try to stop him.

King’s family members in the U.S. say he may have felt overwhelmed by his legal troubles while stationed in South Korea, offenses that could lead to his discharge from the U.S. military.

His immediate fate in North Korea was unknown, but the Pyongyang government has held Americans in the past and not quickly released them.

On Wednesday, North Korea test-fired two ballistic missiles into the sea in an apparent protest of the deployment of a U.S. nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea for the first time in decades.

The arrival of the USS Kentucky, capable of launching Trident II ballistic missiles with a range of 12,000 kilometers, is a highly symbolic move signaling that Washington will stand with South Korea in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack.

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea, told The Associated Press that it is “likely that North Korea will use the soldier for propaganda purposes in the short term and then as a bargaining chip in the mid- to long term.”

King was escorted as far as a customs checkpoint on Monday but left the airport before boarding his flight back to the U.S. It was not clear where he spent time before joining the Panmunjom tour at the border between North and South Korea Tuesday afternoon.

King’s time in South Korea was troubled. Aside from his recent jail term, a court last February fined him $3,950 for assaulting an unidentified person and damaging a police vehicle in Seoul last October.

In that ruling, a transcript of the verdict said King had also been accused of punching a 23-year-old man at a Seoul nightclub, though the court dismissed that charge because the victim didn't want King to be punished.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday that King “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea. He said the U.S. was “closely monitoring and investigating the situation.”

“I’m absolutely foremost concerned about the welfare of our troops,” Austin said, “and so, we will remain focused on this.”

King is the first known American held in North Korea in nearly five years. Each detention has set off complicated diplomatic negotiations.

Cases of Americans or South Koreans defecting to North Korea are rare, though more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to avoid political oppression and economic difficulties since the Korean War ended.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press.