North Korea does not respond to attempts to discuss US soldier

North Korea did not respond Thursday to US attempts to discuss the US soldier who escaped across the heavily armed border and whose prospects for a quick release were unclear at a time of high military tensions and slack communication channels.

Private Travis King, who was due to return to Fort Bliss, Texas after serving jail time in South Korea for assault, ran across the border during a civilian visit to the border town of Panmunjom on Tuesday. He is the first American known to be detained in North Korea in nearly five years.

“The Pentagon contacted their counterparts in the (North) Korean People’s Army yesterday. As I understand it, the communications have not been responded to,” Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the US State Department, told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

According to Miller, the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department are working together to gather information on King’s whereabouts and condition. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the US government will continue to work to ensure his safety and return to his family.

Miller said the State Department has contacted officials in South Korea and Sweden. Jeon Ha-kyu, a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said Thursday that his ministry is sharing information with the US-led UN Command in South Korea, without elaborating.

As far as is known, there are currently no active talks between North Korea and the United States or South Korea.

a clown

The reason why King crossed the border is unknown at this time. A witness participating in the same visit said that she at first thought it was a prank until she heard a US soldier on patrol yelling at others to try to stop him. But King had crossed the border in just a few seconds.

King, 23, was serving in South Korea as a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division. He faced the possibility of being discharged from the military and other possible penalties upon his conviction.

In February, a South Korean court fined him 5 million won ($3,950) after he was convicted of assaulting an unidentified person and damaging a police vehicle in October in Seoul, according to a verdict transcript seen by The Associated Press. According to the ruling, the soldier was also charged with beating a man at a nightclub in the city, although the court dismissed the charge because the victim did not want him to be punished.

It is not known what King did in the hours between leaving the airport on Monday and taking part in the visit to Panmunjom on Tuesday. The army found out he was missing when he didn’t disembark from the flight in Texas.

North Korea had already detained several Americans in the past on charges of alleged espionage and subversion, among others. But it is the first known arrest of an American since Pyongyang ousted Bruce Byron Lowrance in 2018. During the Cold War, a small number of American soldiers who fled to the hermetic nation later appeared in North Korean propaganda films.

“North Korea is not going to ‘catch and release’ someone who has crossed the border because of its strict domestic laws and its desire to discourage foreigners from breaking them. But the Kim (Jong-Un) regime has little incentive to hold a U.S. citizen for long, as it can result in liability,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University.

some compensation

“For Pyongyang, it makes sense to find a way to get some compensation and then expel an American for trespassing, before an isolated incident escalates and threatens its diplomatic and financial interests,” he added. “In the best case, the American soldier will return home safely in exchange for some propaganda victory for Pyongyang, and American and North Korean officials will have a chance to resume dialogue and contacts that have stalled during the pandemic.”

Other experts say North Korea is unlikely to easily return King, as he is a soldier who apparently fled the country voluntarily, though many American civilians detained there in the past have been released after Washington sent high-profile missions to Pyongyang to do so.

The United States and North Korea, which clashed during the Korean War (1950-1953), still do not have diplomatic relations. In the past, Sweden provided consular services in other cases involving Americans, but Swedish diplomatic personnel have reportedly not returned to North Korea since the country closed its borders due to COVID-19 in early 2020 and ordered all foreigners to leave.

King’s case comes as North Korea intensifies its criticism of the United States over its recent moves to strengthen its security commitment to South Korea. The day King crossed, the United States deployed a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time in four decades. Later, North Korea tested two missiles with the potential to hit the South Korean port where the US submarine docked.

On Thursday night, North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun Nam called the docking of the submarine in South Korea “the most obvious and direct nuclear threat” to North Korea. The statement did not mention King.

Kang warned that the deployment of the US submarine may be one of the situations provided for in a new law that authorized the preventive use of nuclear weapons in a wide range of cases.

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