The American-led United Nations Command said Monday it has initiated talks with the North Korean regime about a U.S. soldier who ran into the North last week during a visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Andrew Harrison, a British lieutenant general who is the deputy commander at U.N. Command, refused to say when the conversation started, how many exchanges have taken place, and whether the North Koreans responded constructively, citing the sensitivity of the discussions.
Lt. Gen. Harrison declined to detail what the command knows about Pvt. Travis King’s condition.
“None of us know where this is going to end,” Lt. Gen. Harrison said during a news conference in the South Korean capital of Seoul. “I am in life an optimist, and I remain optimistic. But again, I will leave it at that.”
Given that foreign diplomats all left the Swedish Embassy during the COVID-19 pandemic—the only Western diplomatic outpost in North Korea—alternate channels had to be found to communicate with the regime.
Lt. Gen. Harrison said contact was made through “mechanisms” that led to the 1953 armistice between the two Koreas 70 years ago. That could refer to the so-called pink phone, a telephone line between the command and the North Korean People’s Army at the border truce village of Panmunjom, where Pvt. King crossed.
Pvt. King’s motives are still unclear.
The 23-year-old joined the military in 2021. According to a lawyer who represented him, Pvt. King was convicted of assault in South Korea and fined for damaging a South Korean police car last year. U.S. officials said Pvt. King had just finished serving his time in prison in South Korea and was due to return to his home unit in Fort Bliss, Texas.
“There is no doubt that he’s going to be subjected to very harsh interrogation,” Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Greg Scarlatio told NTD Friday. “Any American is strongly suspected of being a spy.”
“In this particular case, this is a member of the U.S. armed forces. The interrogation might be even harsher,” Mr. Scarliato added. “They will try to extract any information possible.”
U.S. officials have expressed concern about his well-being and said previously that North Korea ignored requests for information about him.
Analysts say North Korea may wait weeks or even months to provide meaningful information about Pvt. King to maximize leverage, add urgency to U.S. efforts to secure his release, or even try to wrest concessions from Washington, such as tying his release to the United States cutting back its military activities with South Korea.
Pvt. King’s crossing came at a time of high tensions in the Korean Peninsula, where the pace of both North Korea’s weapons demonstrations and the combined U.S.-South Korean military exercises have intensified in a tit-for-tat cycle.
These exercises include the deployment of U.S. aircraft and ships, including bombers, aircraft carriers, and submarines.
After the arrival last week of the USS Kentucky, the first U.S. nuclear-armed submarine to come to South Korea since the 1980s, South Korea’s military said on Monday that a nuclear-propelled U.S. submarine, the USS Annapolis, had arrived at a port on Jeju Island.
The North Korean regime has test-fired around 100 missiles since the start of 2022, including solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.