Propaganda tool? Money change? What North Korea might have in mind for Travis King

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — So what will North Korea do about the first American soldier in decades to flee to its territory? Its official media has yet to mention Pvt. Travis King, there is little precedent for his situation and guesses about the country’s next steps vary widely.

Unauthorized crossings through the heavily fortified border of the Koreas are extremely rare. The few Americans who passed through North Korea in the past were a few soldiers, missionaries, human rights defenders, or just curious about one of the most cloistered societies in the world. North Korea used a varied playbook in its handling of them.

Defecting soldiers, like Charles Jenkins or James Dresnok in the 1960s, were treated as propaganda assets, featured in leaflets and films projecting anti-American hatred and praising the Northern regime.

Other Americans have been detained, criticized, and given long sentences based on confessions of anti-state activity they later said they were coerced into. Behind-the-scenes pleas and lengthy secret negotiations ensued, and the detainee was released, often flown home with a senior US official traveling to Pyongyang to secure his release.

None of the previous instances, however, seem relevant as a prediction of what lies ahead with King.

How long he stays will likely depend on whether North Koreans find a way to spin his story for their own propaganda, said Jenny Town, senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and director of the North Korea-focused website 38 North.

It’s unclear whether present-day North Korea would treat King the same way with Jenkins and Dresnok, whose crossings date back six decades. And King might be less ideal as propaganda material. Jenkins entered North Korea in 1965 to avoid combat in Vietnam, which made it easier for Pyongyang to portray him as a disillusioned American soldier who escaped evil imperialists and chose to live in the “socialist paradise” of North Korea. There’s a big difference with King, who was struggling with legal issues and facing disciplinary action and possible release before fleeing to North Korea.

“If they decide he’s not a good story, they can just fire him so it doesn’t exacerbate already fragile relations (with the United States),” Town said. “It’s largely a wait-and-see attitude because there are so few precedents.”

But Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea, says North Korea is highly unlikely to pass up the propaganda value of an American soldier who voluntarily entered the country. While King’s immediate value would be propaganda, Pyongyang could look for opportunities to use him as a bargaining chip to wrest concessions from Washington, he said.

It is possible that North Korea is linking King’s release to the United States reducing military activities with South Korea. The United States has increased its deployment of strategic assets like bombers and nuclear-capable submarines since 2022 in a show of force against the nuclear threat from North Korea.

North Korea’s goal would be to create a dilemma for Washington by “choosing between (enhancing) U.S.-South Korean nuclear deterrence strategies and protecting its own citizen,” Yang said. “It would create challenges for South Korea, which is focused on strengthening nuclear deterrence strategies with the United States,” he said. Thae Yong Ho, a former diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London who defected to South Korea in 2016 and is now a lawmaker, said North Korea has never released a US soldier who entered the country voluntarily. “A specialized security and surveillance team must be organized (for King), an interpreter must be organized, a designated vehicle and driver must be provided, and accommodation must be arranged…You also need to indoctrinate him into the North Korean system, so you will have to organize a team of specialized teachers and a curriculum,” Thae wrote on Facebook. He was apparently referring to Jenkins, who married a Japanese nursing student abducted by North Korean agents in 1978. Park Won Gon, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said currently high tensions between Washington and Pyongyang would complicate diplomatic efforts to bring King home.

During more comfortable times with the United States, North Korea released American detainees fairly quickly and easily.

In 2018, North Korea freed Bruce Byron Lowrance a month after he illegally entered the country via China. Lowrance’s relatively quick expulsion came following a highly orchestrated summit between then-President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June of that year, in which they issued vague goals for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and pledged to improve relations. Weeks before that summit, North Korea released three American detainees who flew home with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

That diplomacy collapsed in 2019, and the current environment appears unfavorable to King’s early release.

Beginning in 2022, Kim has stepped up weapons testing activities, prompting the United States to expand its military exercises and nuclear emergency strategies with South Korea. The US will likely attempt to communicate with the North through the US-led United Nations Command, which administers the southern side of the inter-Korean border village, and through the so-called “New York Channel” using North Korea’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations.

But, given the prolonged diplomatic freeze, it could be some time before the United States can send a senior official to Pyongyang to secure King’s release, if that happens. “The only thing that’s certain right now is that North Korea will handle King the way they want, 100%,” Park said. He also thinks it’s likely North Korea will look for ways to use King for propaganda and diplomatic pressure.

“When an American enters North Korea, they are usually used for political purposes, whether they like it or not,” he said.

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