unknowns about the soldier detained in North Korea

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Why did Travis T. King plan to escape to North Korea? What will be his fate? Will his arrest impact the tense relationship between Washington and Pyongyang? These are some of the unknowns surrounding the unexpected crossing of the dividing line between the two Koreas by the US soldier on Tuesday, when he was visiting the area with a group of tourists.

The young man, who had fled the day before before boarding a plane that was taking him to the United States, let out a loud laugh before running towards the hermetic regime. “We heard a loud 'Ha ha ha' to our right from a boy in our group who ran the other way,” a Swedish citizen who was taking part in the Joint Security Zone (JSA) visit wrote on Facebook. its acronym in English).

Who is Travis T. King?

He is a 23-year-old private second class, a Wisconsin cavalry scout who enlisted in the US Army in January 2021. He was released from prison in South Korea last week after serving nearly two months. for repeatedly beating a man at a club in Seoul last September. He also had to pay a fine of about 3,458 euros after admitting that he smashed the door of a police patrol car in October, the officers had stopped him and he refused to cooperate and provide his personal details. On the day of his apparent escape, King was heading to the plane that was to return him to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he faced disciplinary action for the assault conviction.

What are the facts?

King escaped when he was visiting Panmunjeom, also known as the "truce village" for being the site of the 1953 armistice between the two Koreas, which are technically still at war. The town is located in the heart of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the four kilometer wide strip that serves as the border between the two countries. A day earlier, the soldier was escorted by military police to Inchean International Airport. The agents left him alone to go through security, after which he arrived at the departure gate and told an American Airlines employee that he had lost his passport, airport sources reveal to the Korean Times.

It is believed that already from the same airport, King was able to join a visit to the JSA, which was organized by the United Service Organization, a non-profit organization that operates independently of the US Department of Defense whose mission is to improve well-being. of military service members and their families, as revealed by the Korean Herald.

Not long after this photo was taken, Travis King crossed the border and became the first American to be detained in five years.

Sarah Jane Leslie/LaPresse

Once there, King broke away from the group and ran towards the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Since 2018, the dozen border guards guarding the area have not carried weapons, both those of the United Nations Command and the North Korean soldiers, who are hardly seen. He was chased by the guides, who caught up with him. North Korean police officers arrested him.

Why did he run away?

While his South Korean background is known, King's motives for making such a risky move remain unknown. US officials say he did it "voluntarily." His mother, on the other hand, says that it is not like her son, who had spoken with him on the phone days before, according to his statements to ABC News.

What destiny awaits you?

The fate of US citizens detained in North Korea is not always clear. Some are released voluntarily, while others have been jailed on dubious criminal charges and mistreated in prison. American college student Otto Warmbier was detained while traveling across the country in 2015 and died two years later, after being released from prison and returning to the United States in a coma.

As for King, some analysts believe that Pyongyang may use his arrest as a bargaining chip to put pressure on the United States at a time of heightened tension between the two. But there are more voices that agree that Pyongyang will probably end up deporting him to the US due to the disciplinary measures pending there and the little use of retaining him without getting compensation.

Experts believe that Pyongyang will probably end up deporting him to the US.

However, the long stalemate in relations between Pyongyang and Washington will make it unlikely that the repatriation will be carried out quickly, said North Korean defector Thae Yong Ho, now a deputy for the ruling People's Power Party in South Korea, as he Korea Herald.

Its fate will also depend on whether Kim Jong Un sees it as a good propaganda opportunity, or wants to focus on the "illegal" nature of the crossing and treat it as a criminal with bad intentions, said Rachel Minyoung Lee of the Stimson Center, based in USA to Reuters. Still, the expert does not believe that Pyongyang sees the incident as an opportunity to change US policy toward North Korea.

North Korea could use the incident as a propaganda opportunity, but it probably won't be able to gain political influence. For Pyongyang "it has some gains internally because its propaganda presents the case as another failed provocation by the Americans and the imperialists begging for forgiveness on their knees," said the director of the South Korean Korea Risk Group, Andrei Lankov, to Reuters.

What steps can the US take?

The authorities in Washington, for their part, can do little to put pressure on the Kim Jong Un regime since the apparent defector entered North Korean territory voluntarily. “Since he was not kidnapped, the United States cannot impose additional sanctions on the regime or even criticize it,” Oh Gyeong Seob, senior researcher at the Korean Institute for National Unification think tank, told the Korea Times. "Now it's up to the North Korean leadership to decide if he can stay there," he adds.

“For the sake of their human rights, the United States should enter repatriation negotiations,” Thae implored, recalling existing diplomatic channels such as foreign embassies in Pyongyang. However, the Swedish embassy in the North Korean capital, which is in charge of of US consular affairs, is temporarily closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been further closed if possible by the regime in recent years.

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