Travis King: The Unsolved Mysteries of the US Soldier Arrested for Going to North Korea

A group of tourists tour the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, South Korea, where US soldier Travis King crossed the border into North Korea.Sarah Jane Leslie (AP)

Almost a week after he was arrested for assaulting North Korea in an episode reminiscent of the Cold War, There are more questions than answers in the case of American Travis King, The private second class whose fate is now in the hands of one of the world’s most secretive and ruthless regimes.

The most pressing unknowns are: where he was being held by the Pyongyang authorities, who arrested him last Tuesday after crossing the military demarcation line of the border separating the two Koreas since 1953, and above all, what they plan to do with him. Although the question that delights the talks in Washington is what might have pushed King to the other side. Did you cross with the intention of desertion to avoid punishment? Was it a joke that got out of hand? Or let the imagination run wild: Isn’t there a failed intelligence plan behind all this that went completely wrong?

The pieces of the puzzle that these days could have been pieced together, based on investigations by the US media and the scarce official information available, throw in the bizarre story of a poor devil who got himself into enormous trouble and US diplomacy, which does not maintain relations with Pyongyang, in an annoying rush. It’s also one of the worst possible moments, against the backdrop of the recent deployment of a US nuclear submarine to South Korea and with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un tug-of-war with countries around him through belligerent rhetoric and constant provocations with ballistic missile test launches, several times just this week.

King enlisted in the army in January 2021. He was stationed in South Korea. It is not known exactly when he arrived in the Asian country, where, 70 years after the end of the war, the United States maintains the deployment of 28,500 soldiers. It seems to have been proven that he rotated through various units: from the 6th to the 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss. He was supposed to have landed at that base in Texas last Tuesday, when he decided to become the first soldier from his country to go to North Korea since 1982. His superiors sent him home for disciplinary reasons: King had been involved in an altercation the previous October. He was found guilty of two counts of assault and fined by a South Korean court for, among other things, damaging a police vehicle, according to Reuters. He spent 50 days in detention by the local authorities, who released him on 10 July.

American soldier Travis King.
American soldier Travis King.Social media (via Reuters)

The agents took him to the airport seven days later, but only for passport control, as they were not authorized to take him with him. In the United States, a punishment awaited him, nothing serious, and the boy had in the previous days reached out to his mother, Claudine Gates, to tell her, according to what she told ABC television, to be “quiet”, and that they were close to seeing each other again. Gates stated, “I can’t imagine why Travis would decide to do something like that.”

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It is not clear to her or anyone. The fact is that the soldier then decided to leave the boarding area for Seoul Airport and Join a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ is its English abbreviation), established by the armistice that “suspended” the war and known as the city of Panmunjom, a key point of the infamous 240-kilometer border at the 38th parallel where there is no barbed wire and everything is not infested with mines. It is also the only place that allows public or secret communications between the two Koreas.

This is a visit by tens of thousands of tourists each year (as many as 100,000 before the pandemic), always under order and with prior permission, which adds another mystery to the case: Why didn’t the alarms go off at King’s passport check?

“The most dangerous place in the world”

That morning, he was part of a group of 43 people from around the world who heard the stories being told to each visitor: that Bill Clinton called the site “the most dangerous place on earth,” that the prisoner exchange took place on the Bridge of No Return in 1968, and that there was still another event involving American soldiers, the “axe incident,” which refers to that day in the summer of 1976 when Arthur Boniface was chopping down a pop tree with Mark Barrett. The opinion of a leadership position and that Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung supposedly planted himself. As a result of these crimes, journalists Sara Romero and Macarena Vidal Leigh explain in the book The happiest country in the world. North Korea is under the iron fist of Kim Jong Un (The Peninsula, 2022), And the United Nations Command, which is in charge of border security, demanded that the demarcation line be respected and marked clearly. In just 72 hours, North Korean soldiers built another bridge and left the bridge of no return useless.”

Another classic of these tours are the warnings upon arrival in the blue booth area, where meetings such as the one by the former president take place Donald Trump dated Kim Jong Un in 2019. They tell one that surveillance from the other side is going on, and any recklessness can be fatal. This is where King, according to eyewitnesses, who didn’t know the man in jeans and a soldier’s T-shirt, started running north. One of the tourists who accompanied him, New Zealander Sarah Leslie, told television in her country: “I thought it was a joke, definitely stupid, probably for TikTok. Until I heard one of the soldiers shout, ‘Take that guy! ‘”

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Panmunjom, June 30, 2019.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Panmunjom, June 30, 2019.KCNA Central News Agency (Reuters)

No American, detainee, or defector had ever crossed into North Korea at that location before. And that in the Joint Security Area (JSA) it is enough to jump on a small line of bricks to pass it, as Trump did when he became the first US president to set foot on the territory of one of the most terrible dictatorships on the planet. The incident opened the door to discussion about security measures in that hot spot.

King’s case joins that of compatriots like Bruce Byron Lawrence, who crossed from China and was held for a month in 2018, before being released, Or the story of Otto Warmbier, certainly more tragic. He entered as a tourist in 2016 and was accused of trying to take a communist propaganda poster as a souvenir. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but returned to the United States for 17 months in a coma after, according to the US authorities, he was beaten by the authorities in Pyongyang. He died shortly after returning home.

To find military precedent, one has to go back to Joseph White’s desertion in 1982 (he died three years later as a result of a supposed swimming accident). Although the most famous case was that of Charles Jenkins, who left his post in South Korea in 1965 to avoid being sent to Vietnam. He was allowed to leave the country in 2004. He died in Japan in 2017. The following year, Pyongyang released the last three known American detainees as part of threats that did not work.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin He expressed his “concern” about the fate of the king at a press conference on Tuesday. “We are aware of this,” he added. He also said that the United States has tried to communicate with the North Korean authorities. The United Nations Command made phone contacts with the soldiers on the other side, according to Reuters. This question should be added to the unanswered questions regarding the Private King affair: How does Pyongyang plan to use this unexpected device in its endless tug-of-war with the West? So far, true to its legendary secrecy, North Korea has not publicly responded to the incident.

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