North Korea said Wednesday an American soldier who ran across the inter-Korean border into the North last month admitted that he "illegally intruded" due to "inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army," claiming that he has expressed a willingness to seek refuge there or in a third country.
It marked the North's first public confirmation of the status of Pvt. Travis King, who made an unauthorized crossing of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) into the North during a tour to the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on July 18.
"Travis King confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK as he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army," the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in an English-language report. DPRK stands for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Citing an interim result of the North's investigation into King's border crossing, the KCNA said the U.S. soldier "also expressed his willingness to seek refugee in the DPRK or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society."
The KCNA said the country's soldiers took custody of King after he "deliberately intruded" into the North's side of the JSA and that an investigation by a "relevant organ" is ongoing.
King's alleged remarks reported in the North's state media are impossible to verify.
Shortly after the North's first confirmation of King's detention, the U.S. Department of Defense said the alleged comments by King cannot be verified and that it is focused on bringing him back home.
"We cannot verify these alleged comments," a Pentagon spokesperson told Yonhap News Agency. "The department's priority is to bring Pvt. King home, and we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome."
Observers have said North Korea could seek to use King for its propaganda efforts or as a bargaining chip to demand concessions from Washington as dialogue between the two sides has remained at a standstill since 2019.
"(North Korea) has unveiled a part of its investigation findings without reaching a conclusion," Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in central Seoul, said. "It appears that (the North) is emphasizing that it holds the key to resolving the issue, and calling on the U.S. to make a wise choice."
U.S. officials have previously said King "willfully" crossed the MDL "without authorization" and that the North has not made any substantive response to its inquiries over his status.
The U.S.-led U.N. Command, which oversees activities in the DMZ, earlier said it is working with its North Korean counterparts to resolve the incident but has declined to provide details.
King has faced legal trouble after being stationed in South Korea. He was detained in a South Korean prison workshop from May 24 to July 10 after failing to pay a fine for damaging a police patrol car last year.
On Oct. 8, South Korean police apprehended King for suspected violence at a nightclub in western Seoul. He reportedly did not cooperate with police officers demanding his personal information and kicked the door of their vehicle.
King had been set to return to the United States on July 17, where he could have faced additional disciplinary action, but he did not board his flight at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, and took part in the JSA tour the next day.
The incident came as tensions have run high due to North Korea's continued weapons tests, including a Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile launch last month.
Direct diplomatic talks between the U.S. and the North have been stalled since their working-level nuclear talks in Sweden in October 2019 in the wake of the bilateral no-deal summit in Hanoi in February of that year.
The North's acknowledgement of the incident also came as South Korea and the U.S. plan to kick off a major military exercise next week.
The annual Ulchi Freedom Shield (UFS) exercise based on an all-out war scenario is set to take place from Monday through Aug. 31, featuring various contingency drills, such as the computer simulation-based command post exercise, concurrent field training and the Ulchi civil defense drills.
Pyongyang has long accused the allies' drills of being rehearsals for an invasion against it.
Source: Yonhap News Agency