Pentagon Can’t Say Whether Soldier Who Bolted Into North Korea Is Alive

Screenshot / Defense Department Briefing / C-Span /

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Two days after an Army private ran across the border into North Korea and was picked up by authorities, the U.S. has no updates on his condition, the Pentagon said Thursday.

Despite repeated efforts to contact the closed country through multiple means regarding Private Travis King, the U.S. has not received any response and does not even know if its messages are penetrating to the closed North Korean government, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said at a briefing. King was supposed to fly from South Korea back to his home station in the U.S. for disciplinary action when he slipped out of the airport, joined a tour group visiting the highly securitized North-South border and dashed across the border.

“We want to bring him home. We don’t know his condition, we don’t know where he is, we don’t know the status of his health,” Singh told reporters, avoiding directly answering a question of whether the U.S. had assessed King was still alive.

“We have not heard any communication or correspondence from the North Koreans on this incident,” she said, adding that the U.S. is doing everything possible to retrieve King. (RELATED: North Korea Declares Itself ‘Biggest Victim’ In Otto Warmbier’s Death)

Witnesses on the tour saw King ushered into a van by North Korean guards and driven away, CNN reported, citing U.S. officials. However, there is a blank space in the story during the interim period between when King apparently left the airport and joined the tour group, according to Singh.

The Army’s counterintelligence division is leading an investigation into the incident along with U.S. Forces Korea, Singh said. At the time of the remarks, the U.S. had no indication King defected to North Korea or that his custody with DPRK authorities presented an intelligence liability to the U.S.

“That’s not our assessment,” Singh said, referring to King’s potential characterization as a defector. “That is something the investigation will certainly look into.”

Multiple U.S. government agencies are involved in the effort to make contact with North Korean authorities using sensitive communication methods, she said.

“It’s hard to say” whether the Department of Defense’s outreach is even being received by North Korea, “but we’ve also never had engagement with the North Koreans,” Singh said. “It’s not unexpected.”

The U.S. does not have official diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Sweden, which often represents the U.S. in dealings with North Korea, is assisting the U.S. in the effort, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday, according to CNN.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said King “willfully and without authorization” entered North Korea.

An Army spokesperson late Wednesday confirmed King is a cavalry scout who was on rotation in South Korea assigned to 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment but administratively attached to 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment.

He had just emerged from a detention facility in South Korea, where he served 50 days of hard labor related to three incidents of assault that occurred between September and October 2022, The Messenger reported.

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