SEOUL: The UN Command has started a conversation with Pyongyang over American soldier Travis King, who ran across the border into North Korea last week, its deputy commander said today.
“A conversation has commenced with the Korean People’s Army through the mechanism of the armistice agreement,” lieutenant-general Andrew Harrison said at a press briefing, referring to the deal that ended Korean War hostilities in 1953.
The UN Command is a US-led multinational force that oversees the Korean War truce.
The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice and not a peace treaty.
“The primary concern for us is for Private King’s welfare,” Harrison said, adding that the incident was “still subject to investigation”.
Harrison said that, under the armistice agreement, there was a mechanism allowing the UN Command to communicate with the North’s military but declined to give further details due to the “very delicate nature of these negotiations”.
He said it was a “difficult and complex situation” and that “someone’s welfare is at stake”.
The US does not have any formal diplomatic ties with the North and, since North Korea closed its borders at the start of the pandemic, most embassies with a presence in Pyongyang have withdrawn their foreign diplomats.
Private second class King was being escorted to Seoul’s airport last week and was due to fly to Texas after a drunken bar brawl, an altercation with police, and a stint in South Korean jail.
But instead of getting on the plane to face disciplinary hearings at Fort Bliss, King slipped away, joined a tourist tour of the demilitarised zone and fled across the border.
He is now believed to be in North Korean custody.
North Korea has not commented publicly on King.
Most of the border between the two Koreas is heavily fortified.
But at Panmunjom, also known as the joint security area (JSA), the frontier is marked only by a low concrete divider and is relatively easy to cross, despite soldiers on both sides.
The soldiers there have not been armed since a 2018 deal and the North has significantly scaled back its presence at the JSA since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even so, under armistice protocols, South Korean or US personnel could not run across the border to retrieve King after he sprinted away from his tour group across the dividing line.
Pyongyang has a long history of detaining Americans and using them as bargaining chips in bilateral ties.
The incident comes as relations between the two Koreas are at one of their lowest points, with diplomacy stalled and Kim calling for increased weapons development, including tactical nuclear warheads.
Seoul and Washington have ramped up defence cooperation in response, staging joint military exercises with advanced stealth jets and US strategic assets.
Washington sent a nuclear-capable submarine on a port call to South Korea last week, prompting heavy criticism from the North, which claimed it could meet the legal conditions under which Pyongyang would use its nuclear weapons.