June 18, 2024

(Bloomberg) — About 20 Americans have been detained by North Korea since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, including the US soldier who in July ran across the border in the truce village set up to help forge the armistice. There has never been an easy way for Washington to win their return. The two countries have no direct diplomatic ties and have been adversaries for decades. Pyongyang often uses detained Americans — the last case was about five years ago — as political pawns and seeks maximum concessions for their release. In this case, however, it looks like he will be quickly expelled.

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1. Who is the US soldier detained in North Korea?

The Army identified him as Private Second Class Travis King, 23, a cavalry scout from Wisconsin who’d been in the Army since January 2021. He’d been jailed for nearly two months in South Korea for assault and was set to fly to Texas, where he faced expulsion from the military. But instead he left the airport, joined a tour to the Joint Security Area in the Panmunjom truce village. That’s the only place on the peninsula where military personnel from the US and North Korea regularly can stand face-to-face on their respective side of the border — a concrete slab about as tall as a cigarette lighter. A person on the tour said the man gave a loud laugh and ran between some buildings that straddle the border. King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told ABC News that she spoke with her son a few days prior, when he told her he was returning to Fort Bliss in Texas, saying she could not imagine that her son would cross into North Korea.

2. Has this ever happened before?

This type of crossing is rare. Many of the other Americans detained in North Korea had either already been in the country as part of a tour for some sort of work assignment. Unauthorized crossings have almost all started in China, which shares a long border with North Korea that is far less heavily patrolled than the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, where hundreds of thousands of troops are positioned on either side of a razor-wire barricade. The most similar incident was nearly 60 years ago when then Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins said he drank about 10 beers and fled his post in 1965 to go across into North Korea so he wouldn’t have to serve in the Vietnam War. He was in North Korea for about 40 years and soon after he made the crossing, he realized he made a terrible mistake, according to his 2017 obituary in the New York Times.

3. Who else from the US has been detained?

They include devout Christians who went there for what they saw as humanitarian reasons, university students on tours, a pair of reporters on a story and some people described by their relatives as troubled individuals. North Korea held American national Bruce Byron Lowrance for about a month in 2018, accusing him of illegal entry from China. On the other hand, thousands of Americans have been to North Korea without incident on trips where they are closely watched by minders and limited as to the places they can visit. The country is now off-limits to Americans unless permission is given at a high-level, with the State Department telling nationals not to go there “due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals.”

4. What happens in detention?

Americans have been held in places ranging from decrepit shacks to hotel rooms. They are typically questioned for hours and pushed to their mental breaking points. Kenneth Bae, a US missionary, was arrested in November 2012 in the northeastern city of Rason and sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp for what the North Koreans called plans to overthrow the regime. He was forced to break rocks and dig for coal. His detention of about two years was the longest for an American. Jeffrey Fowle, a tourist detained for about six months for leaving a Bible in a sailor’s club in 2014, was held in guest houses. Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student on a group tour in January 2016, was seized by North Korean authorities and accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster. He was initially sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but was returned to the US in June 2017 in a comatose state — brain dead, blind and deaf. He died days later.

5. How are they released?

North Korea often holds a show trial for foreigners it arrests and sentences them to several years of hard labor. But most of the Americans it has detained were in custody for a year or less. The state has sought the dispatch of high-level envoys from the US including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to take the captives out of the country, usually allowing releases that will score points at home for its leader.

6. What happens now to King?

The official Korean Central News Agency said on Sept. 27 that he would be expelled, but gave no details on when or how in a short, 120-word dispatch. Almost all Western diplomats have left the country since the pandemic, leaving the US with few partners on the ground. The US has some times used a back channel through the North Korean mission to the United Nations, but Pyongyang this year rejected offers from the Biden administration to talk.

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