North Korea stonewalls US on status of detained soldier

Pvt. King’s state -- and what the country might want for him -- is a mystery.

July 25, 2023, 11:24 AM

In the week since U.S. Army Private 2nd Class Travis King crossed into North Korea, American officials have been unable to extract even the most basic information about his condition from tight-lipped officials in Pyongyang -- a move experts say could be a play by the country's authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un to maximize leverage.

"We have not even learned about [King's] whereabouts, about his status, about his safety," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Monday.

While the deputy commander of the U.S.-led United Nation's military force said that conversations about King with North Korea's military had "commenced," officials in Washington clarified that Pyongyang had merely confirmed it received an initial message from the U.N. Command about the soldier.

"It is my understanding that there have been no new communications since last week -- communications that happened in the early days," Miller said, adding that outreach from other channels run by the Biden administration had gone unacknowledged.

North Korean state media has said nothing about King -- who U.S. officials say willingly crossed into North Korea "without authorization" last week and is in custody in the secretive country -- and U.S. allies that retain diplomatic ties with the hermit kingdom have also not been able to gain any insight.

PHOTO: Pvt. Travis King is seen in an undated photo.
Pvt. Travis King is seen in an undated photo.
Claudine Gates

The prolonged silence could be part of a broader strategy, according to Bruce Bennett, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who has worked with the Department of Defense on containing threats posed by North Korea.

"I don't think it's particularly out of the ordinary. North Korea likes to force the U.S. into a position of begging because they're expecting to get more out of the U.S.," he said.

"If you're in the position of North Korea -- which doesn't have many strengths -- one of their strengths sometimes is simply waiting to create anxiety on the U.S. side and make the United States more prepared to give them more for what they eventually give us," Bennett added.

That theory was echoed by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul, who expressed concern that North Korea could attempt to use King as a bargaining chip.

"We see this with Russia, China, Iran -- when they take an American, particularly a soldier, captive, they exact a price for that," McCaul, R-Texas, told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz. "And that's what I worry about."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said "there are certainly concerns" that King could be tortured by Pyongyang, even though the soldier is not believed to have had access to classified intelligence.

"They're trying to figure out a way to make him a public relations success for North Korea," Bennett said. "They may be trying to force him into denunciation of the U.S. and claiming that he was abused in the military or some such thing."

Anthony Ruggiero, senior director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program and the former deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, says Pyongyang could also simply be stalling.

"I think North Korea's response indicates that they're still trying to figure out what to do with a relatively low-level military personnel that crossed the border," he said. "The hard part is deciding what to do."

And for the U.S., that may also prove to be the most difficult question.

Whether the Biden administration is prepared to make any significant concession for King's release remains to be seen. While U.S. officials have expressed concern about King's welfare, they have also underscored that he crossed the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on his own volition and that it's unclear he wants to return to the U.S.

Still, Bennett says the pressure to act is building.

"You can already tell on the US side that there's a great deal of anxiety about this soldier. That's only natural--the US military is supposed to take care of its own," he said.

"The U.S. is kind of at North Korea's mercy here," said Ruggiero. "It's not clear that that we really have any leverage."

Ruggiero noted that while administration officials are likely "game planning" on how to handle requests from North Korea, the U.S. is unlikely to offer up major concessions -- such as relief from financial penalties imposed on Pyongyang over its ballistic missile program.

PHOTO: This picture released on July 13, 2023 shows North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attending the test firing of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) "Hwasong-18" at an undisclosed location in North Korea.
This picture taken on July 12, 2023 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 13, 2023 shows North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attending the test firing of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) "Hwasong-18" at an undisclosed location in North Korea.
KCNA via KNS/AFP via Getty Image

But Ruggiero said former officials such as retiring Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or even former president and current candidate for the office Donald Trump may be able to move the needle with leader Kim Jong Un.

"I suspect that North Korea spends a lot of time watching what former President Trump says and does on the campaign trail, for no other reason than the relationship that he built with Kim in North Korea," he said. "But also, at this moment, President Trump is a front runner."

While Ruggiero said North Korea might ultimately seek engagement with someone closer to the Biden administration, Bennett argues that Kim has shown no appetite for communication with the current president.

"The relationship at this stage is pretty frosty because North Korea is not getting anything out of the U.S. that they would have liked to get," Bennett said. "With Trump, they were getting recognition that they really wanted."

For now, Bennett says, just the spotlight King's case has cast on the hermit kingdom may be enough to satisfy its leader.

"One of the things that Kim Jong Un loves is to be in the Western news. And the longer they keep [King] and the longer they make this difficult for the U.S., the more that Kim Jong Un is likely going to be in the news," Bennett said. "They don't really have much in the way of incentives to be responsive."

There hasn't been a similar case of an American soldier crossing without authorization into North Korea in four decades. The details of that case remain sparse.

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