The United Nations is in talks with North Korea over the American soldier who fled across the heavily militarized border and into the secretive state last week, a top U.N. official said Monday.
Pvt. 2nd Class Travis King, 23, was about to fly back to the United States from South Korea for possible disciplinary action after refusing to pay a fine for allegedly damaging public property.
He slipped away from his military escort at the airport last week and managed to join a guided tour to the Joint Security Area, a piece of land between the North and South that’s managed by the U.N.
Despite no public word from the North Koreans about King, the U.N. force that manages negotiations between the two Koreas said it was in talks with the North about the runaway soldier.
“The primary concern for us is Pvt. King’s welfare,” said Lt. Gen. Andrew Harrison, a British Army officer serving as deputy commander of United Nations Command, known as UNC.
Speaking at a media briefing in Seoul, Harrison said the dialogue was happening through a mechanism set up following the armistice between the North and South, which was signed in 1953 to stop the fighting in the Korean War.
“I can’t say anything that could prejudice that process,” Harrison said. “Much of this remains unknown.”
Asked by NBC News whether King was being treated as a defector, Harrison said, “We haven’t characterized Pvt. King as anything but an American soldier at the moment.”
Last week, Defense Department spokesperson Sabrina Singh said that the U.S. had not received a response when asking about King’s whereabouts and well-being. The U.S. does not have embassy-level relations with North Korea but sent the message through Swedish officials, its regular workaround.
The incident provides another point of tension between the West and North Korea, a repressive, nuclear-armed state that shares a complicated alliance and trading relationship with China.
North Korea says it fears Western-backed regime change and has threatened on several occasions to launch a nuclear strike to prevent this. The U.S. and its allies say the world cannot live with this threat and have vowed to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
On Saturday, the North fired several rounds of cruise missiles into the Yellow Sea, an apparent protest against the deployment of a U.S. nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea.
At an April meeting between President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Biden warned “a nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable, and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action.”
Matt Bradley contributed.