What will North Korea do about the first U.S. soldier in decades to flee into its territory?
Its official media have yet to mention Private Travis King, there’s little precedent for his situation, and guesses about the country’s next steps vary widely.
Unauthorized crossings across the Koreas’ heavily fortified border are extremely rare. The few Americans who crossed into North Korea in the past include soldiers, missionaries, human rights advocates, or those simply curious about one of the world’s most cloistered societies. North Korea has used a varied playbook in its handlings of them.
Defecting soldiers, like Charles Jenkins or James Dresnok in the 1960s, were treated as propaganda assets, showcased in leaflets and films spewing anti-U.S. hatred and praising the North’s regime.
Other Americans were detained, criticized, and handed harsh penalties based on confessions of anti-state activities they later said were coerced. Behind-the-scenes pleas and lengthy backdoor negotiations followed, and the detainee was freed, often flown home with a high-profile U.S. official who traveled to Pyongyang to secure the release.
None of the previous cases, however, seems relevant as a forecast for King.
The length of his stay will likely depend on whether North Koreans find a way to spin his story for their own propaganda, said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and director of the North Korea-focused 38 North website.
It’s unclear whether the North Korea of today would treat King similarly to how it did Jenkins and Dresnok, whose crossings were six decades ago. And King might be less ideal as propaganda material. Jenkins walked into North Korea in 1965 to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, making it easier for Pyongyang to paint him as a disillusioned U.S. solider who escaped evil imperialists and chose to live in North Korea’s “socialist paradise.” There’s a big difference with King, who had legal problems and faced disciplinary action and a possible discharge before he bolted into North Korea.
“If they decide that he’s not a good story, they may just return him so that this doesn’t exacerbate already fragile relations [with the United States],” Town said. “This is largely a wait-and-see as there’s just so little precedent for it.”
But Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea, says it’s highly unlikely North Korea would pass up the propaganda value of a U.S. soldier who voluntarily entered the country.
While King’s immediate value would be propaganda, Pyongyang could also seek opportunities to use him as a bargaining chip to wrest concessions from Washington, he said.
It’s possible North Korea may demand the United States scale back its military activities with South Korea in exchange for King’s release. The U.S. has increased its deployment of strategic assets like bombers and nuclear-capable submarines since 2022 in a show of force against North Korea’s nuclear threat.
North Korea’s goal would be to create a dilemma for Washington in “choosing between [strengthening] U.S.-South Korean nuclear deterrence strategies and protecting its own citizen,” Yang said. “That would create challenges for South Korea, which has been focusing on strengthening nuclear deterrence strategies with the United States.”
Thae 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 Pyongyang has never released any U.S. soldier who walked into the country voluntarily. But it’s also unclear whether North Korea would want to hold King for long, considering his low rank and thus likely low level of U.S. military intelligence he could provide and the high costs of managing his life.
“A specialized security and surveillance team must be organized [for King], an interpreter must be arranged, a designated vehicle and driver must be provided, and accommodation must be arranged. … You also need to indoctrinate him into the North Korean system, so you will need to organize a team of specialized teachers and a curriculum,” Thae wrote on Facebook.
Park Won Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University, said the current high tensions between Washington and Pyongyang would complicate diplomatic efforts to bring King home.
During cozier times with the United States, North Korea released U.S. detainees rather swiftly and easily.
In 2018, North Korea freed Bruce Byron Lowrance a month after he entered the country illegally through China.
Lowrance’s relatively quick deportation came in the afterglow of a highly orchestrated summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at which they described vague goals for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and vowed to improve ties. Weeks ahead of that summit, North Korea released three American detainees who returned home on a plane with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
That diplomacy collapsed in 2019, and the current environment seems unfavorable for King’s early release.
Starting in 2022, Kim ramped up his weapons-testing activity, which prompted the United States to expand its military exercises and nuclear contingency strategies with South Korea.
The United States will likely attempt to communicate with the North via the U.S.-led United Nations Command, which administers the southern side of the inter-Korean border village, and through the so-called “New York channel” using North Korea’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations.
But, considering the prolonged diplomatic freeze, it could be quite a while before the United States is able to send a high-profile official to Pyongyang to secure King’s release, if that happens at all.
“The only thing that’s certain for now is that North Korea will handle King entirely the way it wants to, 100 percent,” said Park. “When an American goes into North Korea, they usually are used for political purposes, regardless of whether they want it or not.”