‘He’s in a Real Bad Place’: US Makes Little Progress in Getting Pvt. Travis King Back from North Korea

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July 19, 2023
A portrait of American soldier Travis King

More than a day after Pvt. Travis King ran into North Korea, efforts by the Pentagon and State Department to get him back have made little headway — and the reasons for the troubled soldier fleeing across the border into the authoritarian state remained mostly a mystery.

The State Department said Wednesday it was working with South Korea and Sweden on the unusual case of the soldier, who had reportedly pleaded guilty to assaulting several people in a South Korea entertainment district, served six weeks in jail and was supposed to be flown back to Fort Bliss, Texas, to face discipline when he fled across the demilitarized zone during a public tour.

Meanwhile, defense officials told Military.com that multiple groups and agencies are working together to secure King’s release. But North Korea remained silent, and King’s physical status, as well as any conditions of his captivity, remained unknown.

“We are engaging all levers of government, but we have not heard anything back yet,” a senior defense official told Military.com.

American captives have not been well-treated in North Korean custody. King’s family spoke out about the incident and his safety on Wednesday.

“I know he’s in a real bad place, a bad situation,” King’s uncle, Myron Gates, told The Associated Press. “And I’m hoping that they let him come home and he’ll be back around his mama or get him some help or something like that. Just be back around his family. That’s what I’m hoping.”

Miller said the Defense Department reached out to “counterparts” in the North Korean Army on Tuesday, but his “understanding is that those communications have not yet been answered.”

Another defense official said that in addition to the Pentagon and the State Department, the United Nations and the White House were also involved in the effort to learn more about King’s situation.

Ellen Kim, a senior fellow and the deputy director of the Korea chair at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Military.com that King’s status as an active-duty soldier may have unnecessarily complicated the initial efforts to learn more about his situation.

“Travis is a soldier, so I guess that from the State Department’s perspective … it’s under [the Department of Defense’s] responsibility,” Kim said in an interview with Military.com. “Usually, when there’s diplomatic communication, it’s the State Department, it’s under their responsibilities … There’s a little lack of interagency cooperation about how both agencies can deal with this.”

Also complicating the situation is King’s reported criminal conduct. The enlisted soldier served almost two months in South Korean jail before he was to be flown to the U.S., but he only made it as far as customs at the Seoul airport, according to the AP. King somehow left and ended up on the tour of Panmunjom, a popular attraction on the tense border with North Korea.

Stars and Stripes, citing records from Seoul Western District Court, reported that Seoul police arrested King just before 4 a.m. on Oct. 8 in Mapo and placed him in a squad car. He reportedly refused to answer questions, kicked the car’s doors and ranted: “F— Korean, f— Korean army, f— Korean police.”

Those court records redacted the names of the victims and the defendant, but a court official confirmed to the military newspaper that King was the defendant. He reportedly was fined about $3,950 and had paid nearly $800 for damage to the police car.

King was also accused of assault on Sept. 25, according to the paper, citing court records, and Seoul police alleged he pushed and punched a patron at a Mapo bar who refused to buy him a drink.

Gates, King’s uncle, told the AP that he was also aware of his nephew being involved in an altercation in Korea, but said it was out of character for the quiet and timid soldier.

“From my knowledge, I just heard that he, I guess, got into a fight with some Koreans,” Gates said. “And it was kind of hard, you know, to believe in that, too. Like, somebody had to push him to do that, because he’s not a violent-type person. He’s really laid back and he’s quiet. And that’s Travis, like really quiet, you know, really don’t talk much.”

In the days leading up to his run across the border, King was released from South Korean detention. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that King “willfully and without authorization” crossed the border.

King’s arrest is the first reported detention of an American in North Korea since 2018, when Bruce Byron Lowrance was detained after illegally entering the country from China and then was later deported. The move was seen at the time as an effort by the North to curry favor with the U.S.

In another case, Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was arrested during a visit to the country, was eventually released in 2017 in a vegetative state. He died days after returning to the U.S.

Kim said North Korea will likely attempt to use King as a bargaining chip, which will only delay negotiations for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t think that North Korea’s attempt to extract concessions from the U.S. will be successful, meaning that this negotiation will take a very long time to achieve the safe return of the American soldier,” Kim said.

Kim added that the tumultuous relationship between North Korea and the U.S. clearly complicates the situation.

King bolted across the border into the secretive and brutal regime on the same day the Biden administration was making a series of moves to bolster its alliance. North Korea launched a pair of ballistic missiles as the U.S. docked a nuclear submarine in the South.

The administration held the first meeting of the nuclear consultation group aimed at curbing nuclear tension with North Korea, and it also sent Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, to South Korea with a 30-person delegation for the event.

The same day, the USS Kentucky — a ballistic missile submarine typically armed with nuclear missiles — arrived in Busan, South Korea, marking the first known visit by a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine since the 1980s. Publicly revealing the presence of a ballistic missile submarine is widely regarded as a show of military strength and deterrence in diplomatic and military circles.

“This is something that, really, happened unexpectedly when there is no dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, which makes the situation and everything more unpredictable and uncertain,” Kim said. “Right now, I think that this is quite embarrassing for the United States.”

— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

— Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

 

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