Travis King: North Korea claims US soldier 'fled army over racism and mistreatment'

US soldier Travis King.
Travis King crossed the border into North Korea on 18 July. Credit: Travis King/Facebook

North Korea has claimed that US soldier Travis King crossed the heavily-guarded Korean border in July to flee "inhuman mistreatment and racial discrimination within the US Army".

It was North Korea's first official confirmation of its detention of Private Travis King, who sprinted across the border while on a civilian tour of a border village on 18 July.

The 23-year-old became the first American confirmed to be detained in nearly five years.

The state-owned Korean Central News Agency claim that King expressed his willingness to seek refuge in North Korea or a third country, saying he “was disillusioned at the unequal American society".

KCNA is a propaganda outlet and its content is carefully calibrated to reflect North Korea’s official line that the United States is an evil adversary.

The report said North Korea’s investigation into King’s “illegal” entry would continue.

A portrait of American soldier Travis King is displayed by his grandfather, Carl Gates Credit: AP

An anonymous US defence department official said the US has no way of verifying North Korea's claims about King.

The official said the Pentagon was working through all available channels to bring King back to the US.

The soldier’s family said his mother, Claudine Gates, is appealing to North Korea to treat her son humanely.

“She’s a mom worried about her son and would be grateful for a phone call from him,” family spokesman Jonathan Franks said in the statement.

“Lastly, she has been in touch with the Army this evening and appreciates a [defence department] statement that it remains focused on bringing Travis home.”

North Korea's claims comes as the country slammed US-led plans for an open UN Security Council meeting on its human rights record as "despicable".

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Son Gyong said the council must first deal with the American human rights issue, calling the US an “empire of evils” and accusing the US of fostering racial discrimination, gun-related crimes, child maltreatment and forced labour.

A North Korean military guard post (background) and a South Korean post are seen along the heavily-guarded Demilitarised Zone. Credit: AP

North Korea, a long-isolated country that is under nominally communist rule, has itself been accused of a number of human rights abuses.

The US, South Korea and others have accused the country of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions.

Some foreign detainees have said after their releases that their declarations of guilt while in North Korean custody were made under coercion.

“This is 100% North Korean propaganda in its element," said Soo Kim, an expert with Virginia-based consultancy LMI and a former CIA analyst.

"King, as an American citizen held in North Korea, has no sway in how [North Korea] chooses to cast its narrative. “As for King’s release, his fate rests in North Korea’s hands. Perhaps the regime will try to ‘bargain’ King’s life in exchange for financial concessions from the US.

"More than likely, negotiations won’t be easy, and terms will be dictated by Pyongyang,” she added.

Travis King, dressed in a black shirt and hat, is seen on the tour before he crossed into North Korea. Credit: AP

Tae Yongho, who was a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London before his defection in 2016, speculated North Korea might release King as it didn't immediately express its intentions of accepting him as a refugee.

Tae, now a lawmaker in South Korea, also cited North Korea's description of King as an illegal entrant, rather than someone who “voluntarily” entered the North.

He added that the country might be reluctant to hold a low-ranked soldier like King as he won't be able to provide it with high-profile US intelligence and it would be expensive to support him.

King was among about 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea.

He joined a group of 43 tourists in South Korea, who were visiting the Demilitarised Zone, which separates South and North Korea.

At the time he joined the tour and crossed the border, he was supposed to be heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, following his release from prison in South Korea on an assault conviction.

US officials say he has been declared AWOL (absent without official leave), which can be punished by confinement, docked pay, or dishonourable discharge.

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