North Korea’s acknowledgment Tuesday that it is holding runaway Army Pvt. Travis King has raised fresh questions about the unusual case, but experts say the reclusive regime’s statement suggests the young soldier is proving to be a poor hostage.
An article from the Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, released Tuesday evening with alleged quotes from the soldier are probably not King’s own words. King “confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK [North Korea] as he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army,” the North Korean outlet claimed.
“The North Korean regime has probably tried to craft the most negative message that they can take advantage of him as far as they can,” Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank, told Military.com in a phone call Wednesday.
KCNA is widely acknowledged to be the propaganda arm of the dictatorship that runs North Korea, and its articles are largely seen as statements of the government rather than a journalistic product.
The reporting is the first word that North Korea has issued on the 23-year-old soldier since Aug. 1, when the Pentagon announced that it had issued a cursory acknowledgment of the United Nations Command’s inquiries about King. It comes nearly a month after King ran across the Demilitarized Zone from a visitors tour in South Korea into the North and captivity.
Bennett said the long silence was likely part of an effort “to get the U.S. to beg and plead to get him,” adding that the reclusive, totalitarian state has “learned that fast action is not necessarily in their best interest.”
The KCNA article went on to say that King “expressed his willingness to seek refugee [sic] in the DPRK or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”
When reached by Military.com, a Pentagon spokesperson said that the military “can’t verify these alleged comments,” before adding that “the department’s priority is to bring Pvt. King home, and that we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome.”
To Bennett, the use of racial discrimination and inequality in the statement is telling. If King were a more prized captive, “they would be trying to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this really valuable person that we got from the West,'” he explained.
“But they’re not saying anything like that — they’re pulling the race card,” Bennett added.
The regime has not shied away from using over-the-top rhetoric in its reports before. A recent June 21 post on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China, for example, called it “a disgraceful begging trip of the provoker” and said that the Biden administration was “in the grip of repugnancy toward the Chinese government.”
No language of that sort was present in King’s story.
Meanwhile, King’s family is just hoping to hear from him. They were made aware of the article Tuesday night and issued a statement, but have stayed silent on North Korea’s allegations that King claimed racism. King and his family are Black.
Jonathan Franks, a spokesman for the family, told Military.com that the Army reached out to King’s mom within an hour of the report becoming public and she is appealing to the North Koreans to treat her son humanely.
“She’s a mom worried about her son and would be grateful for a phone call from him,” Franks said in the released statement.
Bennett didn’t rule out the possibility that the North Koreans would allow such a call, especially if it offers a better political outcome for them or more opportunity to embarrass the U.S.
“This is an exploitation opportunity, and they’re going to try and exploit it as best they can, in whatever way the U.S. allows them to,” he added.
Franks announced in early August that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has negotiated with North Korea on numerous occasions and helped arrange prisoner releases from other countries, has agreed to help in their case.
However, Bennett stressed that “human life is not an important thing” to the North Korean regime and, as a result, “they may conclude that just keeping [King] for a long time is in their best interest and puts pressure on the U.S.”
— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.