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Travis King, a US soldier, crossed into North Korea after joining a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area

Travis King, a US soldier, crossed into North Korea after joining a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area – REUTERS

The United Nations has said that “delicate” talks have begun with Pyongyang over the fate of US soldier Travis King, who unexpectedly bolted into North Korea last week.

Few details have emerged so far about the whereabouts or status of Private King, 23, who had joined a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) between the South and North, before “wilfully” crossing into the latter on July 18.

However, a “conversation” has begun between the North’s Korean People’s Army and the multinational UN Command (UNC) that oversees the JSA, Lieutenant General Andrew Harrison, the force’s deputy commander, said at a briefing on Monday.

“The primary concern for us is Private King’s welfare,” he said.

Lieutenant General Andrew Harrison, deputy commander of UN Command, said Private King’s situation was ‘very difficult and complex’

Lieutenant General Andrew Harrison, deputy commander of UN Command, said Private King’s situation was ‘very difficult and complex’ – JUNG YEON-JE/AFP

Talks about the fate of Private King had begun under the rules of the armistice agreement that brought a truce to the 1950-53 Korean War, he confirmed, adding that he did not wish to reveal any details that could prejudice the process.

“Obviously there is someone’s welfare at stake and clearly we are in a very difficult and complex situation which I don’t want to risk by speculation or going into too much detail about the communications,” Lt. Gen. Harrison said.

“None of us knows where this is going to end. I’m in life an optimist. I remain optimistic.”

When asked whether Private King had been classified as a defector by either side, Harrison said the UNC had not categorised him as “anything but an American soldier”, and added that he would never speak on behalf of North Korea.

Private King had been serving with US forces in South Korea but was scheduled last week to return to his base in Texas where he faced “pending administrative separation actions for foreign conviction”.

While in South Korea he had faced allegations of assault and a £3,097 fine for damaging a police car.

A ‘Proud parent of a US Army soldier’ sticker adorns car outside home of Private Travis King’s mother in Racine, Wisconsin

A ‘Proud parent of a US Army soldier’ sticker adorns car outside home of Private Travis King’s mother in Racine, Wisconsin – ERIC COX/REUTERS

The soldier had just finished a stint in a detention facility for an unspecified infraction and was accompanied to the airport by a military escort, who could not join him beyond customs and immigration. Private King appears to have slipped out of the airport to join the tour.

His disappearance into the reclusive North presents a diplomatic headache for Washington, which is experiencing a low point in relations with Pyongyang over Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of a nuclear missile programme.

On Sunday, Michael McCaul, chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed concern over the “price” North Korea may demand for Private Travis’ release.

‘Running from his problems’

“Is he defecting? I think he was running from his problems,” Mr McCaul said in an interview with ABC News.

“That was the wrong place to go. But we see this with Russia, China, Iran – when they take an American, particularly a soldier, captive, they exact a price for that,” McCaul said. “And that’s what I worry about.”

Pyongyang has a long history of detaining Americans and using them as bargaining chips in bilateral negotiations.

The United States does not have formal diplomatic ties with the North and, since North Korea closed its borders at the start of the pandemic, most embassies with a presence in Pyongyang have withdrawn their foreign diplomats.

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