|A TV screen shows a file image of American soldier Travis King during a news program shown in Seoul Station, July 24, AP-Yonhap|
Pyongyang may seek to capitalize on King's defection for political gain
By Kim Yoo-chul
While a conversation has commenced, there has been no substantive communication between the United States and North Korea on the issue of the 23-year-old U.S. Army Private Travis King, detained in North Korea after crossing the military demarcation line on July 18.
How to respond to the North's escalating military provocations, from the U.S. and its allies' standpoint, isn't the prime issue here ― rather, it is about how to secure King's return to the U.S.
The fate of King, who crossed into the North, still remains uncertain. While it's believed that he is being held in custody by North Korean authorities, North Korea has remained tight-lipped in relation to his whereabouts.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. side is working with Sweden and South Korea for the return of King. As the incident happened at a very tense time in terms of geopolitics, disregarding any political engagement with South Korea and the U.S., political experts say chances are low that King will see a speedy release.
Speaking to The Korea Times, Jonathan Corrado, a director of policy for The Korea Society, a New York-based think tank, said South Korea could play a role in possibly breaking the impasse regarding the issue as the country is one of the U.S.' closest allies in Northeast Asia.
"This is a matter for the U.S. and perhaps its ally South Korea to work out with North Korea," Corrado, who conducts research on the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the Korean Peninsula, added. But citing the fundamental geopolitical dynamics, Corrado stressed this incident is unlikely to precipitate a thaw in relations leading to a negotiation cycle.
"(U.S.) Secretary Blinken urged China to play a productive role on the peninsula. However, this has more to do with constraining the North's reckless provocations and weapons development. Although the origin story of Private King's dash into North Korea isn't related to the larger geostrategic picture, the possibility of the U.S. and the North being involved in a negotiation cycle certainly becomes lower," he said.
In past cases of U.S. citizens being detained in the North, U.S. officials have initiated backdoor diplomatic channels, followed by lengthy negotiations. Once negotiations are completed to release the detainee, U.S. government officials traveled to Pyongyang to confirm the release. But considering continued high tensions between the U.S. and the North, it's unlikely that Washington will officially send officials to Pyongyang to expedite King's deportation.
|A TV screen shows file images of U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a news program reporting on American soldier Travis King, at Seoul Station, July 22. King bolted into North Korea while on a tour of the Demilitarized Zone. The sign on the screen reads, 'Can this be an opportunity to restart dialogue?" AP-Yonhap|
Zack Cooper, a former White House National Security Council (NSC) advisor on combating terrorism and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based public policy think tank, also pointed out that there is less of a chance for Washington to make "substantial sacrifices" to win King's immediate return to the U.S. as the young soldier's dash for the border is a blatant violation of his military orders.
"I suspect that the U.S. will try to get the return of Private King. So, bringing King back home may take months or years to play out and I doubt this incident will substantially change the nature of U.S.-North Korea issues and challenges," Cooper said.
King's present condition is anyone's guess. The essence of the incident is that, unlike the tragedy of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. soldier has not been accused of political crimes against the state.
In Corrado's opinion, North Korea is likely to be presently interrogating King with an aim to extract any militarily relevant information. "I also think these grueling, day-long sessions will last multiple weeks and are designed to extract a 'confession'," he said.
Cooper aligned with Corrado's position regarding the latest status of King that North Korea was on track to figure out how best to make use of the King situation, leading the secretive state to take a slow response to the news of King's border crossing. "North Korea is likely to interrogate him and get whatever information (albeit limited) they can about U.S. forces."
Bargaining chip or propaganda tool?
Now, the key question is just like in previous cases: Will North Korea use King as a bargaining chip or perhaps a propaganda tool? The reality is, according to Washington experts, that the North is less interested in getting short-term gains by releasing him. However, another question is whether or not he should be viewed as a valuable asset given his low military rank.
"King could either be a bargaining chip or a propaganda tool. If he desires to stay in North Korea for fear of punishment awaiting him in the U.S., he would probably become the latter. Once Pyongyang decides on an approach, they will reply to the United Nations Command's (UNC) attempts to discuss the matter," according to the Korea Society director.
|This photo taken on July 18 and provided on July 21, courtesy of Sarah Leslie, shows U.S. soldier Travis King, fourth from left in a black shirt, attending a border tour of the Truce Village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. AFP-Yonhap|
Over the years, there have been a number of U.S. citizens who have crossed the border separating the two Koreas. These people were mostly human rights activists, missionaries and, from time to time, soldiers. On occasion, based on the weight of each incident, the North Korean regime has used political tactics in its handling of border crossers.
The widely-known cases are the defection of Charles Jenkins and James Dresnok back in the 1960s, both of whom were featured in various North Korean films as "U.S. villains." In Jenkins' case, for example, he thought he would be traded to the Soviet Union and then back to the U.S., where he would serve time in jail ― which he preferred over possible deployment to Vietnam. He was held in North Korea for 39 years, where he was tortured and used in propaganda.
While it's still quite unclear whether the North Korean regime will use King similarly to how it did Jenkins and Dresnok, as King was recently released from a South Korean prison after serving two months, there, on charges of assault, Corrado said that he thinks North Korea is presently considering how to play their hand.
King was en route to the U.S. for further disciplinary action but he somehow found his way onto a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) group tour and abruptly ran across the heavily fortified DMZ into North Korea during the tour. Considering the legal issues he faced (and still faces) in the U.S., some political experts said King will be viewed as a "less ideal" candidate to be used as a high-profile propaganda tool from North Korea's standpoint. King's low military rank indicates that he did not have access to high-level U.S. military intelligence.
"Although we know the circumstances surrounding Private King's defection, it's unclear at the present moment exactly what his motive was and what he hopes for his future. This will be a factor in his fate, but not the controlling factor. North Korea holds the keys to his fate now," Corrado said.