The Korea Herald


Breaking silence, N.Korea says US soldier intends to seek asylum

Pyongyang likely to utilize Travis King's case to counter US-led human rights campaigns, say experts

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Aug. 16, 2023 - 15:03

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A portrait of American soldier Travis King is displayed as his grandfather, Carl Gates, talks about his grandson on July 19 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Photo - AP) A portrait of American soldier Travis King is displayed as his grandfather, Carl Gates, talks about his grandson on July 19 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Photo - AP)

Shattering its silence on the issue, North Korea on Wednesday asserted that US soldier Travis King intentionally crossed the inter-Korean border into its territory and expressed his intention to seek asylum. But the US Defense Department dismissed the report, referring to the claims as "alleged comments."

North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency, primarily catering to international audiences, unveiled the "interim findings of the investigation into US soldier Travis King."

The announcement comes nearly one month after King entered North Korea during a group tour of the DMZ. King ran from the group and crossed the inter-Korean military demarcation line that divides the two Koreas in the Joint Security Area on July 18.

Detailing the border-crossing incident, the KCNA claimed that King, a private second-class soldier attached to the US military stationed in South Korea, "unlawfully intruded into the territory of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea" within the Panmunjom Joint Security Area, referring to North Korea by its official name.

North Korean state media asserted that, based on investigations conducted by relevant authorities, "Travis King acknowledged his unlawful intrusion into the territory of the DPRK."

"Throughout the investigation, Travis King admitted to his deliberate decision to cross into the DPRK, driven by his resentment towards the inhumane abuse and racial discrimination within the US military," the KCNA reported.

"Travis King also expressed disillusionment with the inequities present in American society and articulated his intention to seek asylum either within our country or in a third country. The investigation is still ongoing."

In response to the report, the US Department of Defense on Tuesday said it was unable to “verify (the) alleged comments.”

“We remain focused on his safe return. The Department’s priority is to bring Pvt. King home ... and we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome,” Defense Department spokesman Martin Meiners said in the statement.

US Forces Korea was not able to provide an immediate response to The Korea Herald's request for comment regarding the KCNA report, as of 6 p.m. Wednesday.

South Korean and US security guards stand side by side in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom within the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, in July 2022. (Photo - Joint Press Corps) South Korean and US security guards stand side by side in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom within the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, in July 2022. (Photo - Joint Press Corps)

'Calculated announcement'

Seoul-based experts concurred that North Korea's state media strategically unveiled the interim outcomes of the country's investigation at a carefully calculated time, just days before an open briefing at the UN Security Council on Thursday regarding the human rights situation in North Korea.

Earlier this month, the US and Albania, along with South Korea and Japan, made a request to publicly discuss North Korea's human rights abuses and violations at the UN Security Council. The event is highly likely to unfold, given reports that the US has garnered a minimum of nine affirmative votes among the 15 members, facilitating the advancement of the process. The public discussion would be the first of its kind since 2017.

Experts further noted that the investigation report of King's incident was issued around half a day after the KCNA released a press statement denouncing the US-led proposal to convene a public meeting at the UN Security Council.

Kim Son-gyong, vice minister for North Korea's International Organizations of the Foreign Ministry warned that the "DPRK is keeping all options open and closely monitoring the behavior of the United States with utmost vigilance." Kim asserted that if the Security Council were to address a country's "human rights issues," the US should be the first target of discussion on the matter, labeling the US as the "anti-people empire marred by a plethora of societal vices."

Experts took note of the significance behind North Korea's characterization of King as a voluntary defector, emphasizing his aversion to inhumane treatment and racial discrimination within the US military as the foundation for seeking asylum in their statement.

This statement could "potentially indicate North Korea's intention to exploit King's case as a challenge to the US' human rights campaigns directed toward North Korea," said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

"North Korea is highly likely to continually use this incident as an opportunity to counter and respond to the US' human rights campaign against North Korea by highlighting and capitalizing on the issues of racial discrimination within the US rather than engaging in negotiations with the US," Lim added.

Echoing the view, Jung Dae-jin, a professor at Halla University in Wonju, Gangwon Province, said there is the possibility that North Korea will persist in revealing interim investigation results strategically, aiming to leverage them for advantageous positions over the US in various circumstances.

"Moreover, should the need arise, they might also harness this incident internally, similar to how they utilized past occurrences of US soldiers crossing into North Korea, as a tool for advancing their regime's propaganda," Jung said.

Experts also assessed that North Korea's intention is to utilize the US soldier's border crossing as a political tactic, positioning itself advantageously in the lead-up to the trilateral summit at Camp David. The summit will bring together leaders from South Korea, the United States and Japan to address matters pertaining to North Korea and the broader region.

"North Korea is likely to capitalize on the incident for political gains, considering the heightened pressure from South Korea, the US and Japan on North Korea's human rights issues," Lim said. "This pressure is being exerted through multiple channels like the UN Security Council and the trilateral summit."

Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have a track record of bringing attention to North Korea's human rights situation during such summits. For example, the three leaders reiterated their "shared commitment to the immediate resolution of the abductions issue" in a joint statement issued following the Phnom Penh summit last November.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor and president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, also highlighted that the statement might serve as North Korea's preemptive preparation for the possibility of the detained US soldier's case being discussed during the summit.

"North Korea may be aiming to highlight that it holds the leverage to resolve the incident by deliberately disclosing incomplete investigative results ahead of the trilateral summit," Yang said. "The statement, therefore, also functions as a prompt for the US to make a wise choice."