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What North Korea Thinks of Travis King

SEOUL, South Korea — So what does North Korea plan to do with US soldiers fleeing to its territory for the first time in decades? Official media has yet to mention Pvt. Travis King, with little precedent about his situation, speculation varies widely about the country’s next steps.

Unauthorized crossings of South Korea’s heavily fortified borders are extremely rare. The few Americans who have traveled to North Korea in the past have been a few soldiers, missionaries, human rights activists, or people interested in one of the world’s most closed societies. North Korea has used various strategies in responding to them.

Soldiers in exile, such as Charles Jenkins and James Dresnock in the 1960s, were treated as propaganda agents, featured in leaflets and films that projected anti-American hatred and glorified the North Korean regime.

Other Americans were also detained, criticized, and given harsh penalties based on confessions of anti-state activities they later claimed were coerced. After behind-the-scenes pleadings and lengthy backroom negotiations, detainees were released and often flew home with senior US officials traveling to Pyongyang to secure their release.

None of the previous examples, however, seem like a good predictor of Dr. King’s future.

Jenny Towne, senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and director of 38 North, a website devoted to North Korea, said his length of stay would likely depend on whether North Koreans find ways to fabricate his story for their own propaganda.

It is unclear whether North Korea today treats Mr. King the same way Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Dresnock crossed the border 60 years ago. And Dr. King may not be ideal propaganda material. Jenkins walked into North Korea in 1965 to avoid a combat mission in Vietnam, which made it easier for Pyongyang to portray him as a disillusioned American soldier who chose to live in North Korea’s “socialist paradise” instead of evil imperialists. That’s a stark contrast to King, who struggled with legal troubles and faced disciplinary action and possible discharge before he entered North Korea.

“If they decide he’s not a good deal, they may just hand him back to avoid further aggravating an already fragile relationship,” Mr. Towne said. “This is largely a wait-and-see, as there is very little precedent.”

But Yang Moo-jin, president of South Korea’s University of North Korean Studies, said it was highly unlikely that North Korea would ignore the propaganda value of US soldiers who voluntarily entered the country. He said King’s immediate value would be propaganda, but North Korea could seek opportunities to use him as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Washington.

North Korea could link King’s release to the U.S.’s curtailment of military activity with South Korea. From 2022 onwards, the United States is increasing the deployment of strategic assets such as bombers and nuclear submarines to counter the North Korean nuclear threat.

A North Korean military observation post (background) and a South Korean observation post (front) are seen on July 20, 2023 in Paju, South Korea.

North Korea’s aim would be to pose a dilemma for Washington to “choose between the U.S.-South Korean nuclear deterrence strategy (strengthening) and the protection of its own people,” Yang said. “It will be a challenge for South Korea, which has focused on strengthening its nuclear deterrence strategy with the United States,” he said.

Tae Yong-ho, a former diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London who defected to South Korea in 2016 and is now a lawmaker, said North Korea had never released US soldiers who entered the country voluntarily. However, given King’s rank and the high cost of managing life in North Korea, it is also unclear whether North Korea would want to keep him long term, given the likely low level of US military intelligence he provides.

“We have to organize a professional security and surveillance team (for the king), arrange an interpreter, provide a designated vehicle and driver, and arrange accommodation. We need to instill (the king) in the North Korean system, so we need to organize a team of professional teachers and a curriculum,” Thae wrote on Facebook.

“Marriage is also a problem because North Korea values ​​pure blood and kidnapping foreigners from abroad as in the past is very difficult,” Thae added. King said she was referring to Jenkins, who married a Japanese nursing student who was abducted by North Korean agents in 1978. Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said diplomatic efforts to bring King back home would be complicated by the current heightened tensions between Washington and North Korea.

In a time of friendly relations with the United States, North Korea released American detainees fairly quickly and easily.

In 2018, North Korea released Bruce Byron Lawrance a month after he entered the country illegally through China. Lawrence’s relatively quick deportation came in the aftermath of a highly organized summit between then-President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June of the same year. At the meeting, the two sides announced vague goals for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and pledged to improve relations. Weeks before that summit, North Korea released three American detainees who had flown home with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

That diplomacy collapsed in 2019, and the current climate seems unfavorable for Martin Luther King’s early release.

From 2022, Mr. Kim will step up weapons testing activities, which will lead the US to expand its military exercises and nuclear contingency strategy with South Korea. The US is expected to communicate with North Korea through the US-led UN Command, which manages the southern part of the border village, and through the so-called “New York Channel,” which uses North Korea’s UN diplomatic missions abroad.

But given the lengthy diplomatic freeze, it could be a long time before the US can send senior officials to Pyongyang to secure King’s release, even if it does. “The only certainty at this point is that North Korea will 100% treat Dr. King as he wants,” Park said. He also believes North Korea will likely seek ways to use King for propaganda and diplomatic influence.

“When Americans enter North Korea, it is usually used for political purposes whether they want it or not,” he said.

https://www.voanews.com/a/what-north-korea-may-have-in-mind-for-travis-king-/7190138.html What North Korea Thinks of Travis King

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