The US is concerned that one of its soldiers, who is being held in North Korea, may be being mistreated. That country’s authorities have not yet responded to any inquiries about the soldier’s fate.
The soldier, Travis King, was due to return to the US this month for a disciplinary hearing after serving a prison sentence in a South Korean prison. However, shortly before his return he left an airport in South Korea and crossed the border into North Korea.
The US military has launched an investigation into the incident, but according to the Pentagon its first priority is to secure the soldier’s release.
“I am very concerned that King’s crew is in the hands of the North Korean authorities,” said US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.
“I’m especially worried about how they might treat him.”
Wormuth referred to a previous case where the American Otto Warmbier was detained for a year and a half before he was handed over to the American authorities in a coma. He died six days later.
US State Department spokesman Matt Miller also referred to North Korea’s history of abusing prisoners.
“We will always be concerned, given how North Korea has treated prisoners in the past. That’s one of the reasons we reached out to get more information about his well-being,” Miller said.
“The matter is a priority for the department and our diplomatic efforts continue.”
According to Wormuth, the military has reached out to North Korea through the United Nations (UN) and various government departments are trying to gather information about King’s well-being.
“The Department of Defense, the Department of State, the White House; we all use the UN’s channels to bring him back,” she said.
King would have to be subjected to a disciplinary hearing upon his return to the US after an assault incident and resulting prison sentence imposed on him in South Korea.
It is unclear whether he would still have to serve a prison sentence in the US, but Wormuth says she is “sure that he struggled with it”.
“He may not have been thinking clearly (when he crossed the border into North Korea), but we simply don’t know.”
North and South Korea are still technically at war after the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Years later, a so-called joint security area was established on the border of the two countries where soldiers from North and South Korea were deployed.
King was deployed at the joint security area when he assaulted someone and was sent to prison.
Sabrina Singh, deputy press secretary for the Pentagon, says that after King served his prison sentence, he was taken by security guards to an airport to return to the US.
“I don’t think anyone foresaw that he would leave the airport (and cross the border into North Korea).”
The US Army’s counterintelligence unit is leading the investigation into the incident, and will determine whether he is a renegade.
At this stage, however, King is considered absent without leave.
“Our biggest priority still remains to bring King home and we are doing everything possible to find a way to do that,” said Singh.