North Korea has not yet responded to the mystery surrounding United States Army Pvt. Travis T. King’s decision to flee across the inter-Korean border on Tuesday, and it may not comment on the case for days or even months.
Although North Korea has yet to acknowledge that it has Private King in its custody, given its past practices with other US detainees, much of its response will likely be determined by Mr. King’s motive.
US soldiers who have defected to North Korea in the past have been accepted as defectors who renounced capitalist ideology and have been allowed by the authorities in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to live in the country. Americans accused of illegal entry are held in detention and are sometimes released and deported, or prosecuted and sentenced to hard labor.
No matter the scenario, North Korea has treated such Americans as propaganda tools against the United States, and in some cases it has tried to use them as bargaining chips with Washington, which has no formal diplomatic relations with the North.
The Pentagon said only that Mr. King raced across the inter-Korean border into North Korea “willingly and without authorization” while on a group tour of the Joint Security Area, or Panmunjom, which is located in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone. dividing north and south.
The United States and North Korea are still technically at war, and relations between the two have soured since diplomacy between President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, fell apart in 2019.
Mr. King, 23, was assigned to South Korea as a member of the First Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division. After he was released earlier this month from a South Korean detention center where he had spent time on assault charges, he was escorted by US military personnel to Incheon International Airport outside Seoul on Monday to board a plane to the US, where he was expected. face further disciplinary action.
He never got on the plane. Instead, he took a tour bus to Panmunjom the next day.
In the North, American detainees have undergone extensive interrogations and are often forced to participate in government-organized news conferences where they apologize for “hostile acts” and make exaggerated displays of remorse. Detainees who were later released said that these apologies are often written by the North Korean government.
American soldiers who deserted or defected across the DMZ sometimes appeared in propaganda films and even were allowed to found families in the country
“Until the 1970s, when American soldiers defected, North Korea used to hold welcoming rallies in Pyongyang, where officials gave them flowers and gifts like a house, while the soldiers denounced ‘American imperialism'”, Ahn Chan-il, North Korean . defector living in Seoul, told The New York Times on Thursday.
But, Mr. Ahn added, ordinary North Koreans usually had no contact with these American soldiers, and only saw them in propaganda films where they were cast as evil American military officers during the Korean War.
American defectors “are very useful for North Korean directors because no matter how much they try to make Korean actors look like Americans, they don’t look American,” Mr. Ahn said. “As North Korea runs out of Americans to cast for its films, Private King could prove a valuable asset.”
The last time an American soldier defected to North Korea was in 1982. In the past, most, if not all, American soldiers who defected into the country were white. Mr. King, however, is Black, which some North Korean defectors living in South Korea have said may affect how he is treated.
“North Korea is a deeply racist country,” said Ahn Myeong-cheol, a former North Korean soldier who lives in the South. “It’s hard to imagine how North Korea would use a Black soldier in propaganda.”
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in South Korea, suggested that Pyongyang might try to use Mr. King to portray the United States as a divided, racist society while also trying to extract from him as much information as possible about the American army
North Korea, which has not fully lowered its guard against the coronavirus, is extremely cautious about foreigners entering its territory. When it found a South Korean fishing official adrift in its waters in 2020, soldiers shot him dead and were accused by the South of burning his body for fear of infection.
North Korea’s border is still closed, and its ongoing pandemic restrictions make it unlikely that Pyongyang would invite a high-profile US delegation into the country to pick up Mr King, as it has done with some previous US detainees, Mr Cheong added.
“North Korea may expel him at some point,” he said. “According to the available information, it does not seem likely that Private King defected to the North because he fell in love with the North Korean system. More likely, he fled to the North to avoid punishment.”
In South Korea, some expressed disbelief at Mr. King’s decision to flee to the North, as well as the potential security holes at the Joint Security Area.
“I understand that he was afraid to go to the United States to face his punishment, but he might be stuck in North Korea,” said Lee Jay-hyung, a 35-year-old consultant in Seoul. “It was a stupid move.”
Jin Yu Young contributed reporting from Seoul.