North Korea has concluded that U.S. soldier Travis King wants refuge there or elsewhere because of “inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” in the U.S. and the military, state media said on Wednesday.
It was the North’s first public acknowledgment of the army private’s crossing from South Korea on July 18 while on a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) on the heavily fortified border between the neighbours.
U.S. officials have said they believe King crossed the border intentionally, and have declined so far to classify him as a prisoner of war.
North Korean investigators have also concluded that King crossed deliberately and illegally, with the intent to stay in the North or in a third country, state news agency KCNA said.
“During the investigation, Travis King confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK as he harboured ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army,” KCNA said, using the North’s official name. “He also expressed his willingness to seek refugee in the DPRK or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”
King was “kept under control by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army” after his crossing and the investigation was still active, the agency added.
In August, King’s uncle, Myron Gates, told ABC News that his nephew, who is Black, was experiencing racism during his military deployment, and that after he spent time in a South Korean jail, he did not sound like himself.
The KCNA report comes as North Korean officials cite racism and other social problems in America to push back against U.S. criticism, including a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss human rights in North Korea on Thursday.
U.S. officials have said the North had not provided substantive responses to requests for information on King.
The Pentagon said it could not verify King’s comments as reported by KCNA, and remains focused on his safe return. It did not address whether it had heard more details from North Korea.
King’s mother is concerned about his safety and appealed to North Korea to treat him humanely, a spokesperson for his family said.
“Ms. Gates is aware of today’s ‘report’ from KCNA,” the spokesperson, Jonathan Franks said in a statement, referring to King’s mother. “DPRK authorities are responsible for Travis King’s well-being, and she continues to appeal to them to treat him humanely”
It added that King’s mother had been in touch with the Army and appreciated a statement by the U.S. Department of Defense that it remained focused on bringing him home.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for the United Nations Command (UNC), which oversees the border village where King crossed, said he did not have anything to add to previous statements.
“Mentioning King’s willingness to seek refuge in North Korea or a third country shows that it’s still unclear where he wants to go,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat and now a South Korean lawmaker, said state media’s description of King as an “illegal intruder” rather than voluntary defector, as well as its mention of a third country, could suggest that North Korea might not be willing to hold him for long.
“It raises the possibility for North Korea to send him to a third country, where U.S. officials can pick up and bring him home if he wishes,” he said in a statement.
How to classify the 23-year-old has been an open question for the U.S. military.
Although he is an active-duty soldier and the United States and Korea technically remain at war, factors including King’s decision to cross into North Korea of his own free will, in civilian attire, appear to have disqualified him from POW status, U.S. officials have said.
King, who joined the U.S. Army in January 2021, faced two allegations of assault in South Korea, and eventually pleaded guilty to one instance of assault and destroying public property for damaging a police car during a profanity-laced tirade against Koreans, according to court documents. He was due to face more disciplinary measures when he arrived back in the United States.
King had finished serving military detention and had been transported by the U.S. military to the airport to return to his home unit in the United States. Instead, he left the airport and joined a tour of the border area, where he ran across despite attempts by South Korean and U.S. guards to stop him.