The American-led UN Command announced it has started talks with North Korea about US soldier Travis King who ran across the country’s heavily fortified border from South Korea.
The announcement made at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Seoul comes days after 23-year-old US Army Pvt. King made the mad dash after skipping a flight back to the US, where he was facing disciplinary action.
Andrew Harrison, deputy commander of the US-led agency, confirmed talks to get him home have now commenced – but warned the agency does not ‘know where this is going to end.’
‘There is a mechanism that exists under the armistice agreement, whereby lines of communication are open between the UNC and the Korean People’s Army, and that takes place in the Joint Security Area,’ Harrison told press.
‘That process has started.’
Harrison emphasized how restricted he was on the detail he could provide about the talks, but stressed that he remained ‘optimistic’ about King’s safe return to the US.
At this point, King’s formal status in the military is AWOL – absent without leave – and his condition, whereabouts and the status of his health all remain unknown.
This photo shows a portrait of American soldier Travis King at the home of his grandfather Carl Gates, Wednesday in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Pvt. King bolted into North Korea while on a tour of the Demilitarized Zone Tuesday – a day after he was supposed to travel to a base in the US
King, circled, is pictured during the tour moments before his dash across the border into North Korea. He was meant to go back to his country the day before the incident, but crossed one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders into perhaps its most mysterious, isolated nation
The incident is now putting America’s relationship with the Hermit Kingdom to the test – as speculation for days swirled as to what exactly was being done to avoid another national embarrassment like the one several years ago with Otto Warmbier.
Having been on a tour of the area’s notoriously misnamed demilitarized zone, King had recently been released from a South Korean jail after a string of run-ins with police.
He was meant to go back to his home country the day before the incident, but instead crossed one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders, into perhaps its most mysterious, isolated nation.
Providing the crucial update, the senior official would not say how many exchanges have taken place nor if the talks were going well, citing the sensitivity of the discussions.
He acknowledged the non-answers he was providing could seem ‘disappointing,’ but asserted they were only due to the fact he was ‘constrained by what [he could] say.’
‘You may not get the answers for what you’re desperate for,’ Harrison told the journalists, before explaining how shaky the figurative foundation holding up the all-important talks actually is.
‘Obviously, there is so much welfare at stake, and clearly we’re in a very difficult and complex situation,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to risk by speculation or going into too much detail about the communications that are existing.’
When asked, the UN officer also declined to detail what the command currently knows about King’s condition.
‘None of us know where this is going to end,’ Harrison told attendees at the conference.
He added King’s case – whom the US military has said ‘willfully and without authorization’ crossed into North Korea while taking a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area – is still under investigation, and that he could not provide further detail.
He said of the prospect of a safe return: ‘I am in life an optimist, and I remain optimistic. But again, I will leave it at that.’
On Monday, Andrew Harrison, the deputy commander of the US-led agency, confirmed talks to get King home had commenced, but would not specify when exactly they had begun. The conersations will put the US’ already tenuous relationship with the Hermit Kingdom to the test
King had been scheduled to board a flight back to the United States to face a disciplinary hearing for a series of offenses he committed while stationed in South Korea, but instead crossed one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders into perhaps its most isolated nation
It was not immediately clear from Harrison’s comments whether any progress in the talks had been made – after the command said last week that it had been ‘working with’ North Korean officials.
The command – an organization created by the US during the Korean War – has said its main mission going forward will be to ensure King’s safety.
A multinational alliance stationed in South Korea, it has stayed in the country for the past 70-odd years to enforce the 1953 ceasefire reached between the North and South, which is technically still in effect..
Harrison mentioned this armistice during his speech Monday, hinting that the contact happened through ‘mechanisms’ set up under the agreement’s guidelines.
This could refer to a telephone line between the command and the North Korean People’s Army – dubbed the pink phone – which is located at the border truce village of Panmunjom where King crossed.
While not unprecedented – with another US soldier running into North Korea from the DMZ back in 1982 – the issue is particularly problematic considering the Koreas are still technically at war – with a true peace treaty never signed.
The US, which fought alongside the South Koreans and has since surfaced as its most important ally, never established diplomatic relations with the North.
The phone line is one of the few ways in which officials from both sides of the border communicate.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said she was ‘worried’ about Private 2nd Class Travis King, 23, and how North Korea’s brutal regime will treat him
The border between North Korea and South Korea is heavily guarded
King crossed the border at Panmunjom, during a tour of the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone
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 United States´ combined military exercises have intensified in a tit-for-tat cycle. Ex- President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea on June 30, 2019
North Korea has remained silent since King’s entry into the country.
Video shows the private crossing the border during a tour of Panmunjom while he was supposed to be heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, following his release from prison in South Korea on an assault conviction.
US officials and family members have since expressed concern about the soldier’s wellbeing and mental state, with the Army adding that North Korea had ignored requests for information about him.
Analysts say North Korea may wait weeks or even months to provide meaningful information about King to maximize leverage and add urgency to US efforts to secure his release.
Others say the country may try to wrest concessions from Washington, such as tying his release to the United States cutting back its military activities with South Korea, as it looks to perform a victory laps nearly 70 years to the day removed from the end of the Korean War – which the Kims famously claim the North won.
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 United States´ combined military exercises have intensified in a tit-for-tat cycle.
On Monday, South Korea’s military said a nuclear-propelled US submarine arrived at a port on Jeju Island. The arrival of the USS Annapolis adds to the allies’ show of force to counter North Korean nuclear threats.
North Korea’s defense minister also issued a veiled threat, saying the Kentucky´s docking in South Korea could be grounds for the North to use a nuclear weapon against it.
North Korea has used similar rhetoric before, but the statement underscored how strained relations are now.
The United States and South Korea have expanded their combined military exercises and increased regional deployments of US aircraft and ships, including bombers, aircraft carriers and submarines in a show of force against North Korea, which has test-fired around 100 missiles since the start of 2022.
“I can’t see him doing that intentionally if he was in his right mind,” King’s maternal grandfather, Carl Gates, told The Associated Press from his Kenosha, Wisconsin, home. Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, told DailyMail.com on Wednesday that he fears King will now be used as a ‘hostage, political prisoner and a pawn’
Relative say the private suffered a breakdown after King’Nazir Gates (pictured) passed away in February
The Annapolis, whose main mission is destroying enemy ships and submarines, is powered by a nuclear reactor but is armed with conventional weapons.
The Annapolis mainly docked at Jeju to load supplies, but Jang Do Young, a spokesperson for South Korea´s navy, said the US and South Korean militaries were discussing whether to arrange training involving the vessel.
The armistice becomes 70 years old on Thursday, an anniversary South Korea plans to mark with solemn ceremonies honoring the dead that will involve invited foreign war veterans.
North Korea, which celebrates the day as victory day for the ‘great Fatherland Liberation War,’ is preparing huge festivities that will likely include a military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, where leader Kim Jong Un may showcase his most advanced nuclear-capable missiles designed to target regional rivals and the United States.
North Korea´s state-run Korean Central News Agency said Monday that a Chinese delegation led by Li Hongzhong, vice chairman of the standing committee of the country´s National People´s Congress, will travel to North Korea to attend the celebrations.
Visits by foreign guests to North Korea have been extremely rare since the start of the pandemic, which prompted the North to seal off its borders to protect its poor healthcare system.
North Korea since last year has been gradually reopening trade with China in an apparent effort to salvage a crippled economy damaged further by the previous two years of pandemic-related border controls.
Wormuth said: ‘I worry about him, frankly. I worry about how they may treat him. So, (we) want to get him back.
‘He had assaulted an individual in South Korea and had been in custody of the South Korean government and was going to come back to the United States and face the consequences in the Army.
‘I’m sure that he was grappling with that.’
Asked whether King might have sympathized with North Korea, she said: ‘I don’t think we have any information that points to that clearly.’
Some reports have labeled King a ‘defector’, although his motives for crossing the border remain unclear.
The Army Secretary, who was appointed by President Joe Biden in 2021, cited the case to that of Otto Warmbier, a US college student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months before dying in 2017 shortly after he was returned to the United States in a coma.
Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, told DailyMail.com on Wednesday that he fears King will now be used as a ‘hostage, political prisoner and a pawn’.
The Army Secretary, who was appointed by President Joe Biden in 2021, cited the case to that of Otto Warmbier (pictured being paraded by North Korean authorities), a US college student who was imprisoned in North Korea
Fred Warmbier said the US government should work to ‘resolve’ the crisis after Private 2nd Class Travis King, 23, sprinted across with border with South Korea on Tuesday
North Korea’s tightly-controlled state media, which has in the past reported on the detention of US nationals, has yet to comment on the incident.
North Korea and the United States have no formal diplomatic ties following years of international sanctions imposed on the reclusive state for its nuclear arms and missile programs that have drawn frequent U.N. condemnation.
Tensions eased slightly during Donald Trump’s presidency, when he met with Kim Jong-Un at the demilitarized zone where King crossed the border.
King had been acting ‘reckless and crazy’ for several months before the incident, following the tragic death of his seven-year-old cousin from a rare genetic disorder, a relative said.
He suffered a breakdown after King’Nazir Gates passed away in February 2023 and family members believe this also contributed to his issues with South Korean authorities.
Before the border dash, King had also been jailed in South Korea for two months after attacking a man in a night club and damaging a police car. He was also facing disciplinary action from his Army superiors.
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, just wants her son to return to their Wisconsin home (pictured)
King’Nazir’s father, Carl Gates, who is the brother of Travis King’s mom, said it seemed like the soldier was ‘breaking down’ as his cousin’s condition deteriorated.
‘It affected Travis a lot because he couldn’t be here. He was in the Army, overseas,’ said Gates.
When my son was on life support, and when my son passed away… Travis started [being] reckless [and] crazy when he knew my son was about to die,’ he told the Daily Beast.
‘I know it was related to what he did.’
King’Nazir suffered from an extremely rare disorder called SPTLC-2, which caused his muscles to deteriorate. The little boy went through extensive treatment for the condition, but he deteriorated rapidly several weeks before his death.
His family said he was ‘always in good spirits’ despite his illness and described him as an ‘animal lover’ and ‘outdoor lover’.
Gates said King ‘loved and cherished’ his cousin, adding: ‘Picture yourself being in the Army and your baby cousin from your favorite, my only child, he’s struggling and going through pain.
‘And he’s crying like a baby, and now you’re in the service and you can’t do nothing about it. And then you’re crying like a baby. The pain came from my son, and it escalated to this s***.’