North Korea on Wednesday confirmed publicly for the first time that US Army Pvt. Travis King crossed into its territory.
A statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) claimed King had expressed “his willingness to seek refugee” in North Korea or a third country. It also claimed King confessed that he had decided to enter North Korea as “he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army.”
King crossed the military demarcation line from South Korea into North Korea in July during a tour of the Joint Security Area inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ). King, a junior enlisted soldier assigned to US Forces Korea, had faced assault charges in South Korea and was due to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, and be removed from the military just one day before he crossed into North Korea, CNN previously reported.
KCNA added that he had admitted “illegally” intruding into the territory of North Korea and said that the investigation is ongoing.
A US defense official said the United States could not verify King’s alleged comments, but the focus of the Defense Department’s effort is to ensure his safe return.
“The department’s priority is to bring Private King home, and that we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome,” the official said.
King’s mother, Claudine Gates, appealed to Pyongyang to treat her son “humanely” and said she “would be grateful for a phone call from him,” said Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for the family.
US defense officials have said publicly that King “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea while taking a civilian tour of the DMZ.
The US has repeatedly tried to contact the North Koreans for an update on King’s condition, but as of last week had still not received a substantive response, officials told CNN.
Just over a week before making his dash across the border, King was released from a detention facility in South Korea, where he had served 50 days doing labor, defense officials told CNN. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told the Aspen Security Forum last month that King “absolutely would have faced additional consequences” from the US Army for his conduct in South Korea, if he’d returned as planned.
“(H)e had assaulted an individual in South Korea and had been in custody of the South Korean government and was going to come back to the United States to face the consequences in the Army,” Wormuth said. “And I’m sure that he was grappling with that.”
King’s family told CNN earlier this month that they had no reason to believe he would defect from the US military.
Jaqueda Gates, King’s sister, said at the time that her family had not received more information about her brother’s whereabouts, but that he is “not the type to just disappear.”
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has been debating whether to designate King as a prisoner of war, which could afford him greater protections under the Geneva Convention, defense officials told CNN.
No final decision has been made, officials said, and as of now King’s status is still AWOL, or absent without leave.
King could potentially qualify for POW status since the Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, meaning the US and North Korea are still technically at war. And the Geneva Convention provides strict guidelines to signatories about how a prisoner of war must be treated while in captivity. The US and North Korea are both signatories.
But officials have repeatedly emphasized that King was seized by the North Koreans after crossing into the country of his own volition, while dressed as a civilian and on a private tour of the demilitarized zone – not as part of any active fighting between the US and North Korean militaries.
This story has been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Piper Hudspeth Blackburn and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com