The North Korean government reached out to the UN "just in the last 48 hours" to acknowledge the presence of Private Second Class Travis King, the US Army soldier who bolted across the border from South Korea last month, according to the US State Department.
"It was a call to the UN Command at the demilitarized zone," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. "It was not a substantive call. It was an acknowledgement call."
Miller said North Korea still hasn't responded to US efforts to reach out through diplomatic channels. "Because it wasn't substantive, we certainly don't see it as progress in any way," he said.
King, 23, a cavalry scout from Wisconsin, has 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 and joined a tour to the Joint Security Area in the Panmunjom truce village, where he ran across the border and was later whisked away in a van surrounded by North Korean military personnel.
The United Nations Command, which helps enforce the Armistice Agreement that ended Korean War fighting 70 years ago, said North Korea "has responded" to its communication regarding King. "In order not to interfere with our efforts to get him home, we will not go into details at this time," it said in a statement sent Thursday by email.
North Korea has not made mention of King in its official media. This may indicate King is facing intensive interrogation by security apparatus as Pyongyang decides whether he's an asset worth keeping for a while, or someone with little information who may be sent back before he could become a burden on the state.
In previous cases under leader Kim Jong Un, the state has made an announcement of detention a few weeks after an incident, saying the move came after a questioning of the American.
The next steps have typically been a show trial a few weeks later where the detained American is found guilty of trumped up crimes against North Korea and in some cases issues a confession likely designed by Pyongyang's propaganda apparatus to denigrate the US.
In the detention of Arturo Martinez, who illegally crossed the border in 2014, the confession ran to nearly 5,000 words and spun out a web of conspiracy theories that slammed US imperialists, capitalist zealots and the CIA for sinister plots, some of which involved unidentified flying objects. The confession offered praise to former pro wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura for a TV show he hosted that looked into what it billed as a clandestine brain invader weapon.
The last case of an American detained in North Korea was about five years ago when Bruce Lowrance was held for an illegal border crossing. Pyongyang just made one mention of him in a three-sentence dispatch disseminated by state media when he was deported about a month after his detention.
Most of the roughly 20 Americans it has detained since the end of the war were in custody for a year or less. North Korea 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.
Since there are no formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang, Sweden has acted as the protecting power for the US in North Korea. But most diplomats from major democracies with embassies in Pyongyang left after the country sealed its borders at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.