North Korea has publicly confirmed for the first time it has custody of U.S. soldier Travis King, who ran into the North's side of the Joint Security Area on the DMZ nearly a month ago, becoming the first known tourist to do so.
Pyongyang is investigating the Army private second class for his "illegal intrusion" into North Korea, KCNA said Wednesday, adding King "confessed" to being motivated by "inhumane maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army."
It said the 23-year-old expressed a desire to seek refuge in North Korea or a third country, saying he was "disillusioned" over inequality in American society.
King was facing pending administrative separation from the Army when he returned to his base in Fort Bliss, Texas, after spending time in a South Korean jail on assault charges.
The calvary scout was due to board a flight back to the U.S. on July 17, but somehow made it onto a civilian tour of the border complex one day later.
King was taken by North Korean soldiers on duty at the Joint Security Area, KCNA said, when the plain-clothed soldier "deliberately intruded into the area of the DPRK side between the room for the DPRK-U.S. military contacts and the rest room of security officers along the Military Demarcation Line."
DPRK is an acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The Military Demarcation Line is the official border separating the two Koreas, put in place by an armistice that paused the 1950-1953 Korean War, which remains without a formal end and peace treaty.
Eyewitnesses who were part of the same tour group last month said King was laughing when he darted over the marked border, a low row of concrete blocks, with some thinking the bizarre act was a joke or an attempt to shoot a social media video.
The U.S. Department of Defense and State Department both said they cannot verify the statements attributed to King put forth by North Korea. They reiterated that the priority remained bringing King home, and that they were using all available channels toward that outcome.
King's official status with the U.S. military remains AWOL (absent without leave), which automatically switches to "deserter" once a full month has passed.
Previous considerations of assigning him POW (prisoner of war) status to facilitate bringing him home appear unlikely, given that he ran across the border on his own volition.
King’s family continues to appeal for his humane treatment. His mother asked North Korea for a phone call from her son, said a statement delivered by a family spokesperson on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Over the decades, there have been six active duty U.S. soldiers who defected to North Korea prior to King. Only one made it out: Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins called the decision "the biggest mistake I ever made," after being released in 2004, some 39 years after his crossing.
North Korea chose to break its silence on King amid weeks of prodding from the U.S., about two days before the United Nations Security Council is set to openly deliberate the state’s human rights record for the first time since 2017.
Last week, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who presides over the Security Council this month, announced the revived meeting set for Thursday, noting the Kim Jong Un government’s human rights abuses and violations have “facilitate[d] the advancement of its unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles program.”
North Korea views criticism of its human rights as “a grave challenge to [its] dignity and sovereignty,” as declared by its vice foreign minister for international organizations, Kim Son Gyong, on Tuesday in defiance of the planned U.N. discussions.
The North Korean statement also precedes President Joe Biden's hosting of his Japanese and South Korean counterparts at Camp David. Their first standalone trilateral summit, previewed as historic by U.S. officials, is expected to announce newly strengthened military and economic cooperation in the face of evolving North Korea threats and Chinese ambitions in the region.