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Chances Dim for Swift Return of American From North Korea

Any hope of a speedy return of the American soldier who illegally crossed into North Korea earlier this week appears all but dashed by the silence from the hermit state on the whereabouts of Pvt. Travis King.

"We have channels of communication. We've used them," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday at the Aspen Security Forum, explaining that Washington has been trying to establish dialogue with North Korea since the early days of the administration.

"Here's the response we got: One missile launch after another," he said.

As Washington awaits response to outreach through United Nations channels and its intermediary, Sweden, investigations are underway at the U.S. Army and United Nations Command, or UNC, levels to determine how a soldier who was supposed to be on a flight to the United States to face disciplinary measures instead emerged at the border of the two Koreas.

Counterintelligence personnel are leading the army probe in coordination with the U.S. military in South Korea, the Pentagon said Thursday, noting that King's status is AWOL (absent without leave), or away without permission, for now.

The UNC, the U.S.-led multinational force managing the Joint Security Area, or JSA, through which King bolted, is studying the events of July 18 to "determine what policies or procedures are required to minimize risk to visitors in the JSA," UNC Public Affairs Director Colonel Isaac Taylor told VOA.

July 18

On a day that a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine made a rare port call to South Korea to coincide with the launch of the U.S.-South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group, Pvt. King, 23, was in civilian garb taking in a DMZ tour that included a stop at the JSA.

The Joint Security Area is iconified by bright blue buildings that stand on the Military Demarcation Line, the official border that divides North and South Korea, in place for 70 years since an armistice put a pause to the Korean War.

The compound is a popular tourist destination, with bookings often sold out for months, offering the novelty of standing "inside North Korea" within one of the meeting buildings. A tour of the JSA requires submission of additional documents days in advance, including a passport.

King, who was expected at his base in Fort Bliss, Texas, where he faced pending administrative separation from the Army for misdemeanors committed during his South Korea deployment, instead bolted into the North Korean side of the border complex about 3:30 p.m. local time.

He was laughing as he ran, eyewitnesses who were part of the same tour group said. The army private was last seen moving to the back of a North Korean building, then being driven away inside a van by North Korean soldiers, according to a report that cited a Defense Department report on the illegal crossing.

Tourists stand near a border station at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, July 18, 2023. Not long after this photo was taken, Travis King, a U.S. soldier, fourth left, in dark blue shirt, bolted across the border. Tourists stand near a border station at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, July 18, 2023. Not long after this photo was taken, Travis King, a U.S. soldier, fourth left, in dark blue shirt, bolted across the border.

His motive for such a puzzling and dangerous decision remains unknown, as are his whereabouts between checking in for his Dallas-bound flight at Incheon International Airport on Monday and his JSA tour that left from Seoul the following day.

King had served time in a civilian jail in South Korea on assault charges up until a week before his scheduled flight to Texas, and he was facing potential additional repercussions at his base in Fort Bliss.

In interviews with news outlets, his family expressed surprise, his mother recalling she'd heard from him a few days prior and couldn't see him doing anything like that.

"I just want my son back. I just want my son back," Claudine Gates told reporters outside her home. "Get my son home and pray, pray that he comes back.'

Rare bolt

King's dash through the JSA is highly unusual, with few precedents.

While over the decades there have been U.S. soldiers who defected through the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ - the 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide buffer running across the Korean peninsula of which the Joint Security Area is a part - this is the first time any person successfully disappeared into North Korea from the South while on a JSA tour.

There was one such attempt in 2001 by a German doctor-turned-activist, Norbert Vollertsen, according to the assistant secretary of the Military Armistice Commission at the time, Stephen M. Tharp.

Vollertsen was caught by armed guards before skipping over the low concrete blocks that mark the border, the retired lieutenant colonel said. His stated purpose was to start an incident to bring North Korea's human rights plight to the world's attention.

King's run also comes as firearms and guard posts were removed at the compound in 2018 amid a detente mood between the two Koreas during the previous administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

North Korean troops had been stationed outside at the JSA just like their South Korean counterparts, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed that. The North Korean government issued border lockdowns and stringent COVID-19 rules, so when North Koreans were spotted at the JSA during the pandemic, they were in Hazmat suits.

In November 2017, a North Korean soldier dodged a shower of live fire rounds by his compatriots, running for his life through the JSA in a bold defection attempt. By the time he got to the south side, he was wounded but alive.

Now, with COVID-19 restrictions and other fears at play, King could be looking at a more complicated processing reality, analysts say, such as weeks of quarantine before questioning by North Korean guards even begins.

Amid escalating tensions

While North Korea has yet to speak on King's status, it did issue a warning this week against the presence of the USS Kentucky nuclear submarine parked in Busan, South Korea, presumably holding 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"The U.S. military side should realize that its nuclear assets have entered extremely dangerous waters," North Korea's defense minister, Kang Sun Nam, said late Thursday via state media KCNA, hours before the submarine would depart.

A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, July 22, 2023. A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, July 22, 2023.

North Korea Fires Cruise Missiles, Says South Korean Military

Kang said the deployment of such strategic assets could trigger North Korea's use of nuclear weapons, as codified in its nuclear force policy, if "it is judged that the use of nuclear weapons against it is imminent."

The nuclear weapon trigger warning is mostly being taken in stride in Seoul, with some analysts saying it shows a North Korea under duress. Pyongyang knows full well a first-use case will almost certainly mean a mutual wipe-out, they say.

Still, a war on the Korean peninsula is a scenario the U.S., Japan and South Korea must be ready for together, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said in an interview published Saturday.

"I think that the Korean situation is an area that the United States could - I'm not saying it will, but could - find itself in a state of war, you know, within a few days, with very little notice," Milley said, according to the Nikkei news organization based in Japan.

For now, North Korea will have its hands full next week, in part, as it gears up for a second massive military parade of the year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice signing on July 27, which Pyongyang claims as its Victory Day.

Remembrances planned at the JSA on the South Korea side, however, have been canceled as the UNC conducts its investigation.