Mystery surrounds US soldier who entered North Korea days ago, officials say

Nearly 72 hours after 23-year-old US Army Private 2nd Class Travis King entered North Korea, US officials say they have been unable to obtain clarification on his whereabouts or condition – and even the circumstances that led him to cross the border remain a mystery.

The Pentagon said Thursday that military counterintelligence officials are investigating what prompted King to part ways with a group of tourists visiting the demilitarized zone separating South and North Korea, where witnesses said he crossed the border on Tuesday.

He was originally scheduled to leave Seoul after being taken to the airport on Monday, officials said. Back in Texas, he faced “pending administrative separation actions for overseas sentencing,” a US official said. He had been detained for more than a month after an altercation with residents, according to an official.

So far, information-gathering efforts have been crippled by Pyongyang’s obstruction. Although various agencies and intermediaries attempted to communicate with the North Korean government about King, none said they received a response, and the country’s state media also remained uncharacteristically silent.

“We are still doing everything we can to try to find out his whereabouts, his well-being and his condition and to make it clear that we want to see him safely and quickly returned to the United States and to his family,” White House spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

“It’s not for lack of trying, we have nothing,” he said.

A US official said that after King entered North Korea, he was immediately taken away in a van. But the Pentagon says it sees no reason to suspect the soldier planned his crossing with the North Korean government.

Asked whether the State Department feared for King’s safety, its spokesman Matthew Miller said on Thursday that Pyongyang’s past treatment of detained US nationals was cause for concern.

“Certainly I think we would still be concerned given the North Koreans’ treatment of former detainees – we would have that concern and that’s why, one of the reasons why, we are reaching out to ask for more information about his well-being,” he said.

But those demands go unanswered — illustrating how communication between countries has deteriorated under the Biden administration.

Although the US government has repeatedly attempted to engage Pyongyang on issues such as nuclear proliferation, these efforts have yet to elicit a response from the hermit kingdom.

“There is no regular contact. I will say that communication between our two countries is limited,” Miller said.

PICTURED: A group of tourists stand near a border post in Panmunjom in the Paju Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, July 18, 2023.

A group of tourists stand near a border crossing in Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone of Paju, South Korea, July 18, 2023. Shortly after this photo was taken, Travis King, a U.S. soldier, crossed the border and became the first known American detained in the North in nearly five years.

Sarah Jane Leslie/AP

Anthony Ruggiero, senior director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, said North Korea may be biding its time.

“They probably take the time to talk with [King] and see what to do next,” Ruggiero said.

In previous cases involving Americans detained in North Korea, Pyongyang ignored contacts from the United States and Sweden – the US diplomatic liaison in North Korea – for weeks.

Ruggiero said Pyongyang could seek to turn the latest incident into “an advantage” if it felt the US soldier in its custody was a source of diplomatic attraction.

If so, Ruggiero explained, his reluctance to engage with US officials could evaporate.

“I think you’ll probably see that the North Koreans want to speak as directly as possible to an American official,” he predicted.

Kim Jong Il, the former supreme leader of North Korea and father of its current leader, Kim Jong Un, approved the release of American detainees after visits by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

But even if there is direct contact between the United States and North Korea, Ruggiero and other experts expect the Biden administration to be reluctant to spend significant political capital to secure the freedom of a soldier who fled while under disciplinary action.

If so, North Korea could choose to release King, Ruggiero said, as they did with Bruce Byron Lowrance — an American national who entered North Korea in 2018 and was released a month later — a move that helped set the stage for the first summit between then-President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

“North Koreans may believe this is more of a headache than it’s worth,” Ruggiero said.

Ben Gittleson, Luis Martinez, Martha Raddatz and ABC News’ Matt Seyler contributed to this report.

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