'I worry' about 'price' to get soldier Travis King back from North Korea, McCaul says

"Is he defecting? I think it was more running from his problems."

July 23, 2023, 10:42 AM

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul said Sunday that he's concerned North Korea will demand concessions from the United States in exchange for releasing American Travis King, the soldier who last week fled across the border from South Korea.

"Is he defecting? I think it was more running from his problems," McCaul, R-Texas, told ABC "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz, referencing King's pending discipline in the U.S. after being detained in South Korea for nearly two months following a local altercation.

"That was the wrong place to go. But we see this with Russia, China, Iran -- when they take an American, particularly a soldier, captive, they exact a price for that," McCaul said. "And that's what I worry about."

Officials have said that King, a 23-year-old Army private 2nd class, had been on his way back to the U.S. early last week when, instead, he left the airport in Seoul, joined a tour group visiting the border between North and South Korea -- and then bolted across, entering North Korea on Tuesday.

He had been scheduled to fly to Texas to face a "pending administrative separation actions for foreign conviction" and had recently been released from 47 days in a South Korean detention facility.

Since King entered the country, North Korea -- with whom the U.S. does not have formal relations -- has not responded to inquiries about his status, as the Biden administration says it continues to push. In a statement via the Army, King's family said, "We request privacy as we work toward our son's safe return."

It remains publicly unclear what exactly motivated King to flee, though an official said that last year he said he would not return to America.

"I'm sure that he's not being treated very well," McCaul said Sunday. "I think it was a serious mistake on his part, and I hope we can get him back."

PHOTO: In this April 27, 2023, file photo, Rep. Michael McCaul speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
In this April 27, 2023, file photo, Rep. Michael McCaul speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The King incident is unfolding as the U.S., for the first time in four decades, docks a nuclear ballistic missile submarine in South Korea. The presence of the USS Kentucky -- which Raddatz exclusively toured -- in Busan has drawn outcry from North Korea, which test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this month.

"Is that a good idea?" Raddatz pressed McCaul of the submarine's presence. "Why now?"

"It's a projection of strength that we need right now to deter aggression," McCaul said. "We're seeing a very aggressive -- not only North Korea and the rockets fired in the Sea of Japan, but also the aggression we see from China [regarding Taiwan]."

"North Korea needs to know that we're there and we have superiority with the submarines and nuclear subs. We need to get in their head and Chairman Xi's head that if they do anything that's aggressive militarily, there will be consequences to that," McCaul added, referencing Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

When asked what the U.S. could do differently to blunt North Korea's nuclear ambitions after decades of failed negotiation and pressure, McCaul acknowledged the cycle had not been successful. "That never seems to work ... you're right," he told Raddatz.

"It's a very complicated," he said, suggesting an alternative would be "very creative diplomacy" while pointing to North Korea's potential role in future military operations with China.

"I think the reason why you're seeing the [Indo-]Pacific Command fleet there is to deter and bottleneck up North Korea in the event of a conflict with Taiwan," he said.