U.N. says it’s in Contact with North Korea over Detained U.S. Soldier

July 24, 2023

The U.S.-led United Nations Command said Monday it has started talks with North Korea about a U.S. soldier who crossed the border last week.

Army Pvt. Travis King was reported to be in North Korean custody after the Pentagon said he “willfully and without authorization” crossed into the North while on a group tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA), which lies in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea this past Tuesday.

British Lt. Gen. Andrew Harrison, deputy commander at the U.N. Command, refused to say when talks with North Korea started, how many exchanges had occurred so far, or whether the North Koreans responded constructively, citing the conversations’ sensitivity. He also declined to detail what the command knows about King’s condition.

“None of us know where this is going to end,” Harrison said during a news conference in Seoul. “I am in life an optimist, and I remain optimistic. But again, I will leave it at that.”

Harrison did say the contact occurred through “mechanisms” set up under the 1953 armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean Conflict 70 years ago, though North and South Korea are still technically at war since a peace treaty has never been signed. Further, relations between the U.S. and North Korea have deteriorated since 2019, when diplomacy between then-President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke down

U.S. officials have said their requests for information on 23-year-old Pvt. King’s well-being have been ignored by Pyongyang. 

King had been assigned to South Korea as a member of the First Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division. Earlier this month, he was released from a South Korean detention center where he had been held for 48 days on assault charges.

Though he was escorted by U.S. military personnel to Incheon International Airport outside Seoul last Monday to board a plane to the United States, where he was expected to face additional disciplinary action, he instead took a tour bus to the JSA.

The U.S. State Department bans Americans from entering North Korea “due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long term detention of U.S. nationals.”

The ban was put in place after American college student Otto Warmbier was detained in North Korea while on a tour of the country in 2015. He died in 2017, days after he was released from prison and returned to the United States in a coma.

Analysts say North Korea may wait weeks or even months to provide meaningful information about King in order to maximize leverage, possibly through attempts at concessions from Washington, regarding his release. 

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