The United States is actively engaged in ensuring the return of an American soldier who crossed into North Korea, a U.S. official said on Thursday, ahead of a trilateral meeting with Japan and South Korea on countering North Korean nuclear threats.
At the opening of the meeting, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Sung Kim said that the United States is doing all it can to obtain information on Pvt. Travis King’s situation and to ensure his safety and return.
On Tuesday, a local United Nations Command reported that a U.S. national had crossed the border into North Korea during an organized excursion visiting the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.
According to South Korean media, Pvt. King arrived with a group of civilian visitors at the Panmunjom truce village in the Joint Security Area (JSA) when he suddenly bolted over the line marking the border.
The incident happened on the same day that a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine visited South Korea for the first time since the 1980s.
“As you can imagine, in a situation like this, those discussions are quite sensitive and I’m not prepared to go into all the details at this point,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a press statement. “We here at the State Department have engaged with counterparts in South Korea and with Sweden on this issue,” he added.
As one of the few countries with an embassy in Pyongyang, Sweden has, since the 70s, played a crucial role in contacts between Western governments and North Korea.
However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, its diplomats were withdrawn in 2020 and have since not returned. Though the embassy has remained open, staffed by local employees, the current situation leaves the United States with no option but to seek alternative channels to discuss Pvt. King’s apparent defection.
“I would have to imagine that they’re not that optimistic about what they can do,” Joshua Fitt from the Center of New American Security told Reuters. “But at the same time, the United States is committed to bringing home citizens from detention abroad.”
Though some analysts have mentioned Pyongyang might use their American detainee as diplomatic leverage, others have countered that this might not necessarily happen on account of Pvt. King’s military rank not being that high.
Pyongyang reportedly has a standard playbook for treating American and other Western detainees or defectors well in order to avoid political blowback (with Otto Warmbier being a notable exception—the American student who was convicted for tearing down a propaganda banner in a North Korean hotel).
Reuters contributed to this article.