SEOUL: The United Nations Command and North Korea have begun discussing the case of Travis King, the US soldier who crossed into the North last week, the deputy commander of the US-led command that oversees the Korean War truce said on Monday.
King, a US Army private serving in South Korea, sprinted into North Korea on July 18 while on a tour of the Demilitarised Zone on the inter-Korean border, landing Washington in a fresh diplomatic quandary with the nuclear-armed North.
Conversations between the UNC and North Korea’s military were initiated and conducted through a mechanism established under the Korean War armistice, according to Lieutenant General Andrew Harrison, a British Army officer serving as deputy commander of the multinational force.
“The primary concern for us is Travis King’s welfare,” Harrison told a media briefing, declining to go into detail about the contact with the North.
“The conversation has commenced with the KPA through the mechanisms of the Armistice agreement,” Harrison said, referring to the North’s Korean People’s Army.
“I can’t say anything that could prejudice that process.” North Korea’s state media, which has usually commented whenever US nationals have been detained, has remained silent about King.
The incident comes at a time of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula. Last week, North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests hours after a US nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine arrived at a South Korean port.
It was the first such visit since the 1980s, and served a blunt reminder to the North that Washington always has nuclear-tipped missiles deployed within close striking distance.
Tours to the border truce village
North Korea is banned under UN Security Council resolutions from using ballistic missile technology, which Pyongyang defiantly rejects.
Tours to the border truce village, known formally as the Joint Security Area (JSA), were suspended after King bolted across the border.
People joining those tours, which are overseen by the UNC, need to sign up well in advance to get approval and are supposed to follow strict rules, including what they can wear, for the tour.
It remained a subject of an ongoing inquiry how King was authorized to go on the tour despite his record, Harrison said.
King had served detention in South Korea on charges of assault and damaging public property and was due to fly back to his home base in Fort Bliss, Texas last week to face disciplinary action.
When asked if the plan is to keep the area open to the public, Harrison said when or how the JSA part of these tours would resume was yet to be decided.
“It’s a constant balance between that value (of educating the public) and the risk to the individuals who are in the Demilitarised Zone,” he said.
On Saturday, the North fired a barrage of cruise missiles toward the sea to the west of the Korean Peninsula. On Monday, another US nuclear-powered submarine arrived in South Korea.
Late last week, North Korea warned that deployment of US aircraft carriers, bombers or missile submarines in South Korea could meet criteria for its use of nuclear weapons.