North Korea offers the first official confirmation that it has detained US soldier Travis King

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Wednesday offered its first official confirmation that it had detained a U.S. soldier who bolted into its country last month, releasing a statement through its propaganda outlet attributing unverified statements to the Army private that criticized the United States. One expert called the announcement “100% North Korean propaganda.”

There was no immediate verification that Pvt. Travis King actually made any of the comments about his home country. King, who had served in South Korea and sprinted into the North while on a civilian tour of a border village on July 18, became the first American confirmed to be detained in the North in nearly five years.

The official Korean Central News Agency, citing an investigation, reported that King told them he decided to enter North Korea because he “harbored ill feelings against inhuman mistreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army.” The report said King also expressed his willingness to seek refuge in North Korea or a third country, saying he “was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”

KCNA is a propaganda outlet and an official voice of leader Kim Jong Un’s government, and its content is carefully calibrated to reflect North Korea’s official line that the United States is an evil adversary.

The report said North Korea’s investigation into King’s “illegal” entry would continue. Verifying the authenticity of the comments attributed to King in North Korea’s state media is impossible.

The United States, South Korea and others have accused North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions. Some foreign detainees have said after their releases that their declarations of guilt while in North Korean custody were made under coercion.

A U.S. Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the U.S. had no way to verify North Korea’s claims about King. The official said the Pentagon was working through all available channels to bring King back to the U.S.

“This is 100% North Korean propaganda in its element. King, as an American citizen held in North Korea, has no sway in how (North Korea) chooses to cast its narrative,” said Soo Kim, an expert with Virginia-based consultancy LMI and a former CIA analyst.

“As for King’s release, his fate rests in North Korea’s hands. Perhaps the regime will try to ‘bargain’ King’s life in exchange for financial concessions from the U.S. More than likely, negotiations won’t be easy, and terms will be dictated by Pyongyang,” she said.

The soldier’s family said his mother, Claudine Gates, is appealing to North Korea to treat her son humanely.

“She’s a mom worried about her son and would be grateful for a phone call from him,” family spokesman Jonathan Franks said in the statement. “Lastly, she has been in touch with the Army this evening and appreciates a (Defense Department) statement that it remains focused on bringing Travis home.”

Tae Yongho, who was a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London before his defection in 2016, speculated North Korea might release King eventually because it didn’t immediately express its intentions of accepting King as refugee in the North and spoke about a third country resettlement. Tae, now a lawmaker in South Korea, also cited North Korea’s description of King as an illegal entrant, rather than someone who “voluntarily” entered the North.

Tae earlier said North Korea would be reluctant to hold a low-ranked soldier like King for long because he won’t provide it with high-profile U.S. intelligence and would require high costs and resources to manage his life.

Some analysts have said North Korea might try to tie King’s release to the U.S. cutting back its military activities with South Korea, amid heightened animosities between the wartime foes.


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