On July 18, 2023, U.S. Army soldier Pvt Travis King, who was on a civilian tour of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone that marks the boundary between South Korea and North Korea) bolted from the tour group and sprinted onto the North Korean side of the boundary. He was chased by soldiers guarding the south side of the border, but the distance was only a few yards. He was quickly across the delineation line and just as quickly was taken into custody and whisked away in an unmarked van. I want to note upfront that, although Pvt Travis King and I share the same last name, we are unrelated. “King” is the 34th most common surname in the United States, and according to the 2010 U.S. Census, some 465,422 Americans share that surname.
Pvt King, born in Wisconsin in 1999, enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 2021. He was later assigned to the 1st Armored Division, and his unit arrived in South Korea in February 2022. He had a long record of problems during his short time in the military. In early September 2022 he failed to report for daily formation, and when he was later located he “refused to return to post or to America.” Three weeks later he punched a South Korean man in the face a number of times, and few days after that he was arrested by South Korean police following a fight with South Korean civilians. He damaged the police car in which he was being driven to the police station after his confrontation with South Korean civilians. A South Korean court fined him the equivalent of four thousand dollars. When he refused to pay that fine, he was held for seven weeks in a South Korean detention facility, which prevented Pvt King from returning to the United States with his military unit.
After his South Korean confinement ended, Pvt King was kept at a U.S. military base in South Korea for a week, and then on July 18 he was escorted to Incheon International Airport where he was scheduled to board a flight from South Korea to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he was expected to face disciplinary action and be discharged from the U.S. Army for having received a foreign criminal conviction. Pvt King was escorted by military personnel to the customs checkpoint at Incheon, where the accompanying military personnel were not permitted to accompany him to the departure gate. He left the airport without boarding his flight, claiming that he was missing his passport. The following day he joined a regular civilian tour on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone boundary between South and North Korea. While on that tour at Panmunjom, he sprinted across the border into North Korea.
Defection vs. Detention –Americans Willingly and Unwillingly in North Korea
The decision of Pvt Travis King to go to North Korea was a conscious choice. Military personnel in Korea clearly understand that illegally crossing the border would provoke North Korean officials, and he also knew that he was willfully disobeying lawful orders from his military superiors to return to the United States. His sudden dash into the North was a conscious choice to avoid disciplinary action at home, however misguided or poorly thought out it was. His action was defection to avoid returning to the United States rather than detention against his will by North Korea.
In the past two decades, some twenty Americans have been detained against their will in North Korea. Most were individuals legally visiting the North as tourists, humanitarian aid workers, business men and women, with approval of North Korean authorities. They were detained and prevented from leaving by North Korean officials for violating North Korean law. Many of these violations were actions that would not be considered illegal in the United States or most other countries, but they were violators of the law in the North although the visitors did not understand the local regulations and practice.
The most tragic and highly publicized was the case of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student who visited Pyongyang with a tour group over the New Years holiday in January 2016. During the visit he removed from the hotel wall and then placed on the floor a framed propaganda slogan with the signature of Kim Jong-il. His action was considered highly disrespectful of the Supreme Leader and a serious violation of North Korean law. At a perfunctory trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in prison at hard labor. Shortly after the trial, he was found in his prison cell in an unresponsive state. Over a year later, Warmbier was returned to his family in the United States in a persistent vegetative state, and U.S. physicians determined that he suffered severe brain damage. He died soon after his return.
From 2009 to 2017 some twenty U.S. citizens were detained in North Korea for various periods of time. In most cases these were individuals with proper documentation for their visit to the North, and they were there for reasons considered legitimate by government authorities. They were detained for various periods of time and were ultimately permitted to leave the North. Those there for the longest period of time were Kim Dong Chul (October 2015 to May 2018) and Kenneth Bae (November 2012 to November 2014). Both are of ethnic Korean background, but are U.S. citizens. Kim Dong Chul operated a business in a special economic zone in northern North Korea, but he was accused of illegal religious activity and spent almost three years in prison. Bae operated a tourist company which took foreign visitors to North Korea for tours sanctioned by Pyongyang, and he was arrested for illegal religious activity. He wrote a thoughtful memoir of his experiences in the North focusing on his two-year imprisonment.
Wikipedia has a reasonably complete list of Americans who have been detained against their will by North Korea. For the time period from the mid-1990s to about 2019, the list is reasonably complete. In that period North Korea was more open to foreign tourists and business people, and the presence of more individuals led to more being detained for violating local laws. The number of U.S. citizens visiting North Korea declined significantly after 2017 when U.S. regulations were changed and travel restrictions were imposed on U.S. citizens because of problems with the detention of U.S. visitors. In the last four years of the COVID pandemic, North Korea has closed its borders to foreign visitors from all countries, with the result that foreigners, including U.S. citizens, are not able to visit the country.
The North Korean military responded to the UN Command in Korea regarding inquiries about Pvt King’s crossing into the North, but no information was released about the North Korean response. It is likely simply an acknowledgement that Pvt was in their custody, but with no additional information. More information or comment from the North is unlikely until the North Korean military has completed its interrogation.
“Defectors” Who Switch Allegiance to North Korea
In addition to U.S. citizens who are visiting and, in some cases, living temporarily in North Korea for humanitarian and business reasons, there are also “defectors” who have made the decision to leave the United States and who are living in North Korea for political or other reasons. “Defectors” is not a completely satisfactory term for this group, but is reasonably accurate. The experience of these “defectors,” however, has generally not been positive.
In the last several decades, half a dozen are in the “defector” category. All of them were U.S. military personnel who illegally crossed the border into North Korea. This took place during the period after the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953 until the changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Soviet Union went through political and economic change. Those who chose to go to Korea in this era were U.S. soldiers who were stationed in South Korea.
The best-known individual in this category is Charles Robert Jenkins (1940-2017). Born in North Carolina, Jenkins was a U.S. Army deserter. While he was stationed in South Korea in January 1965, he abandoned his patrol and walked across the DMZ. His decision was made because he was being ordered to lead “more aggressive, provocative patrols” and rumors were circulating that his unit would be sent to Vietnam. This is based on Jenkins personal memoir written after he spent almost forty years in North Korea. North Korean media reported that Jenkins defected “because of disgust with conditions in South Korea and that he believed life was better under the Communists.”
Although Jenkins remained in North Korea for 39 years, he was never trusted by North Korean officials. He was held captive more than accepted as a comrade in arms. A Japanese student nurse, Hitomi Soga, who with her mother had been abducted earlier from Japan by the North Korean military men, was given to Jenkins as his wife, and they were parents of two daughters. Between 1978 and 2000 Jenkins acted in North Korean motion pictures. One role he played in a series of movies about the Korean War was the evil “Dr. Kelton,” a capitalist warmonger who used war and conflict to benefit the capitalist U.S. war industry. Jenkins was very well-known in the North for his movie roles.
In 2002 Jenkins’ Japanese wife was permitted to visit her family in Japan for ten days as part of a temporary reconciliation between Japan and North Korea following a visit to North Korea by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. This was part of a Japanese effort to deal with North Korea’s illegal abduction of Japanese citizens. Soga refused to return to the North at the end of the ten days, but the Japanese government was able to set up a reunion between Soga and Jenkins ss in Indonesia. Jenkins also refused to return to North Korea, and the couple returned to Japan. In Japan, Jenkins faced a court martial for desertion from the U.S. Army, but after forty years, he was given a given a dishonorable discharge and confined for only 25 days at a U.S. military facility in Japan. He provided information to U.S. intelligence about his experience in North Korea, and he wrote a memoir of his experiences. Jenkins died in Japan in December 2017.
In addition to Jenkins, three other American soldiers illegally crossed into North Korea. The group lived together, and all became involved in North Korean propaganda efforts. James Joseph Dresnok (1941-2016) was an American soldier who defected across the DMZ while serving in South Korea in August 1962 when he was 21. Larry Allen Abshier (1943-1983) abandoned his post in South Korea and crossed into North Korea in May 1962 when he was 19 years of age. The third U.S. soldier, Jerry Wayne Parrish (1944-1998), was serving in South Korea when he illegally entered North Korea in 1965. All three of these men had troubled family backgrounds. In his memoir, Jenkins quoted Parrish as saying that if he ever went home, “his father-in-law would kill him.”
The four defectors were eventually all granted North Korean citizenship, and all married, but they were never fully trusted by the North Koreans. The four all acted as evil U.S. villains in North Korean movies. Dresnok had the best screen name for his American roles – “Arthur Cockstud.” The four “movie stars” had similar backgrounds, though they were not a collegial group. Of the group only Jenkins finally left North Korea. The others died in the North.
In addition to the four movie stars, two other defectors from the U.S. military are known. Roy Chung (born 1957 and died before 2004). Chung was born in South Korea and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1973. He joined the U.S. Army and was serving in West Germany when he was reported absent without leave (AWOL) on June 5, 1979. Other defectors crossed the DMZ to defect to North Korea, but Chung apparently began his journey from Bayreuth, West Germany, where his unit was stationed. That area is very near the German border with Czechoslovakia. It may be that he went to Czechoslovakia, which was then a part of the Warsaw Pact and had close links to other communist countries, including North Korea. Two months after his disappearance, Radio Pyongyang announced that Chung had defected “because he could no longer endure the disgraceful life of national insult and maltreatment he had to lead in the U.S. imperialist Army.”
The sixth American who “defected” to North Korea was Joseph T. White (1961-1985). He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1981 and was later stationed in South Korea with a unit on the DMZ near Kaesong. At 2 in the morning, he was seen by fellow soldiers walking through the DMZ carrying a duffel bag, which they later learned was full of military documents he stole, including maps of the mine placement along the border. In February 1983 White’s parents received a letter from their son saying he was an English teacher and was happy in North Korea. In November 1985 his parents received a letter from a North Korean contact of Joseph White telling them that their son had drowned in August 1985 and his body was not recovered.
What Lies Ahead for Pvt Travis King
Members of Pvt King’s family have “begged American officials to ‘fight’ for his safe return” and “pleaded with the U.S. government to do more to get him home.” United States State Department consular officials who deal with Americans detained in North Korea have reached out through usual channels to determine the status and welfare of Pvt King and to seek his return. The consular affairs staff at the State Department are particularly well informed and understanding in dealing with problems of U.S. citizens.
Most of the work done by the State Department, however, focuses on individuals detained by North Korea against their will. Pvt King’s action was a voluntary choice he made. It was an unfortunate impulsive decision, but a decision that is particularly difficult to “undo.” North Korean officials are not likely to be particularly concerned or swayed by humanitarian concerns of Pvt King’s family or understanding for a young man’s impulsive decision that turned out to be a bad decision.
Based on past experience, North Korean officials have doubts and questions about the sincerity of Pvt King’s actions. They are likely to wonder if his defection is part of a U.S. scheme to create difficulties or problems for the North. Americans held by North Korea, including both military defectors as well as tourists and business detainees, have been treated with little sensitivity or compassion. The initial assumption is that these individuals are seeking to harm the regime and that they are agents of the hostile United States, and they are treated harshly. The questioning starts with an assumption of guilt and malice on the part of the detainees. Kenneth Bae and Charles Jenkins, who underwent interrogation, describe how this process works.
Those who have been detained by North Korea in the past have experienced little sympathy or understanding. Even the American defectors who voluntarily remained in North Korea and who have been able to reflect on their experience after leaving have had little positive to report. The suspicion and the feeling of “otherness” remains. Of the six U.S. military personnel who defected in the past, only one, Jenkins, was able to leave North Korea and that was not until 39 years after he arrived in North Korea.
Based on past experience with Americans in North Korea, we are not likely to get any information until the interrogation is completed. U.S. student Otto Warmbier was arrested on January 2, 2016, as he was aboard the aircraft preparing to leave North Korea to return. Over eight weeks later, he appeared at a North Korean press conference to apologize for his actions and the Swedish Ambassador, who handles U.S. consular issues in Pyongyang, was finally permitted to meet with him at about that same time. Based on past experiences with the North Korean government, Pvt King’s fate is not likely to be resolved quickly and it is not likely to be resolved in a favorable way.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from fresh888’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.