On October 15, Konstantin Asmolov, Leading Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Member of the Scientific Committee of the DPRK International Solidarity Group, published an article in the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” with a detailed explanation of the reasons for the extradition of Travis King.
Below is the full content of the article.
On July 18, 2023, a 23-year-old US Army soldier Travis King defected to North Korea through the demilitarized zone from the South. In the history of the South-North Korean division, there have only been six instances (King was the seventh one) of U.S. soldiers fleeing to North Korea.
King was a troublemaking soldier. Let us recall that, on October 8, 2022, King was detained by the South Korean police on the nightclub violence charges. The private was not cooperating with the police officers who demanded his personal data and kicked open their car door. From May 24 to July 10, King was held in a South Korean prison after failing to pay a fine for damaging the police patrol car.
On July 17, King was supposed to return to the United States, where he could face additional disciplinary penalties, but he did not board his flight at Incheon International Airport, after which he was found to be among the DMZ tourists.
The incident occurred against the backdrop of increased tensions between the countries, and therefore a favorable conflict resolution for the United States was deemed unlikely. On August 3, the UN Forces Korea Command announced that it had made contact with the North Korean side regarding the Travis King case, and North Korea had “responded” to their request. With that, they declined to give any further details, however, saying that the disclosed information could hamper the efforts aimed at returning him home.
On August 16, the KCNA published the U.S. Serviceman Travis King-Related Interim Investigation Results, which stated that Private Second Class King, who was in a tourist group seeing the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, “deliberately crossed into our side’s territory and was detained by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army”. During the investigation, Travis King admitted the fact of illegal crossing into the DPRK’s territory and “acknowledged having an antipathy to the inhuman humiliation and racial discrimination available in the U.S. Armed Forces,” which is why he decided to go over to the North. King “said that he is disappointed in the unfair American society and expressed his will to emigrate to our country or a third country.” But “The investigation is ongoing.” Also, the fugitive’s photo was published.
The ROK media immediately noted that “King’s statements published in the North’s state-run media are impossible to be verified.” A Pentagon spokesman added that “we are working through all available channels to bring King home”.
Experts, however, stated that North Korea may try to use King for its propaganda efforts or as a bargaining chip to urge concessions from Washington. Park Won-gon, Professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, deemed the KCNA statement as a “pre-emptive action against the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting, as well as the U.S., ROK and Japan leaders’ trilateral summit” and suggested that Pyongyang is “starting to use King as a propaganda tool”, although “it is not yet clear how exactly.” Allegedly, on the one hand, the escape was called an illegal invasion, but, on the other hand, the possibility of allowing King to seek asylum was mentioned.
The ruling party deputy Tae Yong-ho, who is a defector from the North, said that the KCNA’s mention of a U.S. soldier seeking refugee status in a third country “could be interpreted as the North hinting at the possibility of sending him to a third country at his will. If North Korea really wanted to keep detaining the U.S. soldier, it would never mention his possibility to seek asylum.”
King’s mother Claudia Gates expressed concern for her son’s safety. As the family representative told the Korea Times, “Ms. Gates is aware of today’s ‘report’ by the KCNA. It is the DPRK authorities who are responsible for Travis’ well-being, and she continues to urge them to treat him humanely. She is a mom worried about her son and would appreciate a phone call from him.”
John Kirby, the US National Security Council’s Strategic Communications Coordinator, insisted that “we should be sceptical of everything that is coming from Pyongyang.” “We still want to know where Private King is. We still want to know in what condition he is being detained since we certainly have the worst concerns and unfortunately, many strong reasons to fear for his safety”
Experts also noted that the KCNA statement made the previous U.S. official statements to recognize him as a prisoner of war more unlikely, as Pyongyang confirmed that his border crossing was voluntary. King’s current status in the U.S. Armed Forces is an ‘unauthorized absence’.
On September 27, the KCNA issued a statement that the investigation into the U.S. serviceman Travis King had been over. The investigation confirmed that Travis King “has an antipathy to the inhuman humiliation and racial discrimination available in the U.S. Armed Forces and is disillusioned with the unfairness of American society,” which is why he decided to go over to the Republic’s territory. Nonetheless, “The DPRK’s competent authority decided to deport, under the republican laws, U.S. serviceman Travis King, who illegally crossed into the Republic’s territory, from the country.”
A day later, the details appeared in the U.S. and ROK media, when King had already been “taken into custody within the U.S. jurisdiction.” On the anonymity condition, a senior official reported the following:
- “We are grateful to the Swedish Government for its diplomatic role as a protecting power of the United States in the DPRK and to the Government of the People’s Republic of China for its assistance in facilitating the safe transit.” Let us explain that, absent of diplomatic relations between the DPRK and the U.S., the Swedish Embassy acts as a mediator and perform this function well where the Americans have problems in the DPRK. As in the other cases, the North Korean side refused any direct contact with the United States. Hence, the negotiations were held through the Swedish diplomatic mission.
- Earlier in September, “the United States learned through Sweden that the North wanted to release King,” after which the Swedish side delivered the main negotiating work. China, on its end, helped ensure King’s safe transit across the border and played a “very constructive” but not mediating role.
- After leaving the North, King arrived in the Chinese border city of Dandong, then flew to another Chinese city of Shenyang, and then to Osan Air Base in South Korea, from where he was transported to the United States and taken into custody there. Now, he is “in good health and spirit”, which is an important remark showing, for instance, that he has no signs of torture or other ill-treatment.
- When asked if there were any concessions to the North in exchange for King’s release, the official replied: “None. We are now focused on his health and making sure he gets all the required support until the reunion with his family.”
- When asked to explain the next procedures King will face, the official underlined the Government’s priority to “reintegrate” the soldier. “We are now focused on taking care of him and his family, and we will explore all these administrative issues after his reintegration is over,” and then Travis King is awaiting a several-week investigation into the circumstances of his escape.
- In the anonym’s opinion, the King story “shows that, even with strained relations, the communication lines maintenance is a really important thing that can get results.”
Later that day, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement expressing gratitude to Sweden and China for their diplomatic efforts and actually repeated the anonymously statement. Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder also issued a similar statement regarding King’s release.
Experts began to think about how to explain Pyongyang’s act in order to meet the usual clichés. No one considered King’s release a conciliatory gesture. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller did not have high expectations as to the diplomatic consequences of King’s extradition: “I do not consider this a sign of a diplomatic breakthrough that would have any consequences for the other issues and problematic areas between us and the DPRK regime.”
Patrick M. Cronin, Head of the Asia-Pacific Security Department at the Hudson Institute, also noted that the decision to expel the U.S. soldier looks more like an expediency: “Kim Jong Un does not want to take responsibility for Travis King, and his retention-related risks outweigh any further benefits.”
Frank Aum, Senior Expert of the United States Institute of Peace, also considered the release as the “North Korea’s expulsion of a foreigner who, in its opinion, has no value and could potentially become a headache.”
On September 28, the U.S. State Department officially announced that, on the night of September 27, the U.S. serviceman was handed over to the U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns. On the same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said that, in response to the requests received from both the DPRK and the United States, “the Chinese side has provided the required assistance based on humanistic principles”.
It is clear that King, who has been taken into custody, is in more trouble than that he would have been subjected to before his escape to North Korea. Even if an abusive treatment is later found out, it will not cancel his voluntary escape. But “the saga is further not about him”, since we are much more concerned ourselves with Pyongyang’s behavior, which is unexpected for the majority of Western experts.
Against the background of the tough confrontation between the DPRK and the U.S., the North was rather expected to make Private King a “victim of racial discrimination who chose freedom” despite his dubious biography. North Korea was virtually expected to follow the same pattern that the U.S. and ROK use with respect to so-called “career defectors” being the persons who, after their fleeing from the North to the South, turn into heroes on propaganda shows, despite the fact that a material part of them escaped not for political reasons, but out of fear that they or someone from their close relatives would be criminally prosecuted. Here we can recall Shin Dong-hyuk, who appeared to be a child rapist, Park Young-mi, who was the concubine of a human trafficking gang leader in China, and Park Sang-hak, who was pulled out from the North by his influential father who “chose freedom because otherwise he would have been imprisoned for embezzlement and corruption”. Having reasonably assessed that a petty criminal, whose crimes had been amply documented by the South Korean police, was not good enough to play a victim, Pyongyang however showed its great wisdom. Perhaps, this is a systematic approach to the defectors since North Korea has hardly ever refuged anyone. Maybe the realisation of the fact that to welcome a brig rat is a bad example for its own servicemen acted the part. And the above was likely supplemented by the fact that he was not aware of any classified information.
But one way or the other, North Korea has demonstrated its pragmatism and unwillingness to start a conflict for the sake of conflict. In contrast to the U.S. and ROK practices, a person with an easily verifiable dingy background was not turned into a propaganda icon and could not escape retribution for his bad behavior committed outside of North Korea. This is an important moment that should be remembered when analyzing what the DPRK state machine is.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.