The Black American soldier being detained by North Korea after illegally crossing into the rogue nation last month did so because of inhumane and racist treatment in the U.S. military, according to a new report issued by North Korean state media.
The latest development surrounding Travis King was the first time North Korea officially acknowledged the 23-year-old Private 2nd Class in the U.S. Army was in its country.
Nearly a month ago, King ran while laughing across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) separating South Korea from North Korea. While U.S. officials immediately attempted to contact North Korea following King’s apparent defection, Tuesday was the first time the isolated country confirmed the soldier’s presence.
Speculation has run rampant about King’s motivations for crossing the MDL, but the new report from North Korean media – which is notorious for being under the tight control of its dictatorship government – offered the first alleged explanations for his actions.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that King “deliberately” and “illegally intruded” North Korea because “he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army,” according to KCNA Watch, a Korean media outlet that aggregates North Korean state media.
The statement added: “[King] also expressed his willingness to seek refugee in [North Korea] or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”
The statement claimed King “confessed.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Defense said the legitimacy of the report could not be immediately confirmed.
“The department’s priority is to bring Private King home, and that we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome,” the official told CNN.
U.S. officials immediately reached out to North Korea in an effort to secure King’s “safety and return,” U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Sung Kim previously said.
Reuters reported that King’s apparent defection to North Korea comes at a time of “heightened tensions around the Korean Peninsula” and on the same day that “a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine visited South Korea for the first time since the 1980s.”
North Korea, which has been largely isolated by the globe following repeated threats of nuclear aggression over the years, test-launched two ballistic missiles the day after King crossed into the nation in what may have been a response to the soldier’s detention. Or, it very well could have been just the latest instance of North Korea displaying its missile program.
U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last month that King “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea.
The U.N. Command issued a similar statement.
“A U.S. national on a JSA orientation tour crossed, without authorization, the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” the U.N. Command said. “We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA [Korean People’s Army] counterparts to resolve this incident.”
King’s mother and brother have joined his uncle in speaking out in hopes of having their loved one returned home.
“I just want my son back. Get my son home,” Claudine Gates is shown on video telling reporters visiting her home in Wisconsin last month. “Get my son home and pray that he comes back.”
When asked for further comment, a clearly emotional Gates said she had nothing more to say.
A man who identified himself as King’s brother said the family understands “the gravity of the situation” and asked the media to respect the family’s privacy during the trying time.
He said Gates “has lost a son before … so this is weighing very heavily on her.”
Eventually, he added, the family would formally address the media and asked reporters “to defer to the U.S. military and whoever’s handling” the international incident.
At the time of the crossing into North Korea, King was possibly having an ongoing emotional reaction to the death of his uncle’s young son months ago.
Carl Gates, whose sister is King’s mother, told the Daily Beast that the news of the death had weighed heavy on the young soldier, particularly because he was abroad and away from his family.
“It affected Travis a lot,” Carl Gates said.
He said King began acting “reckless” before the 7-year-old died and believes the North Korea incident is “related” to the death.
Carl Gates told the Associated Press that he doubted King “was in his right mind” when he crossed into North Korea.
“Travis is a good guy. He wouldn’t do nothing to hurt nobody. And I can’t see him trying to hurt himself,” Carl Gates added.
King crossed into North Korea on July 18, about a week after he was released from a South Korean prison on assault charges. He was behind bars for 48 days because he did not pay a $4,000 fine for damaging a South Korean police car and “shouting profanities about Koreans and the Korean army” while he was being arrested in October.
Following King’s July 10 release from the prison in Cheonan, which is about 50 miles south of the capital city of Seoul, he was set to return to a military base in Texas where he was expected to be further disciplined for his actions in South Korea.
But after King was escorted to an airport outside of Seoul, he was not allowed to board his flight because he lacked the proper paperwork, prompting him to be removed from the airport.
Eight days later, King found himself embedded within the tour group visiting the JSA before he reportedly ran across the MDL while laughing. The Associated Press reported that King “sprinted” and “bolted” across the MDL.
Racism in the U.S. Army
Racism in the U.S. Army and all arms of the American military has been well documented, especially in recent years.
A survey from last year found that “42% of service members of color in a new survey turned down an assignment or permanent change of station order because of concerns about racism and discrimination, even when they knew doing so could negatively affect their career because of perceptions of racism in the local community,” according to Military.com.
On a more granular level, “about 33% of Black active-duty family respondents reported being racially profiled by military law enforcement at least once since January 2020, compared with about 36% who said they were profiled by civilian law enforcement.”
And nearly half of all Black respondents to the survey “said their race or ethnicity ‘significantly’ or ‘slightly’ hurt their ability to get ahead at work.”
In 2021, an Associated Press investigative report found that “current and former enlistees and officers in nearly every branch of the armed services described a deep-rooted culture of racism and discrimination that stubbornly festers, despite repeated efforts to eradicate it.”
Typically, if anybody crosses the demarcation line, it’s been North Koreans defecting to the South in an effort to flee the ruthless authoritarian government of leader Kim Jong Un, who has long been accused of human rights violations.
According to the U.S. Department of State, there is a travel ban for Americans entering North Korea.
“Do not travel to North Korea due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals,” the State Department says on its website. “Exercise increased caution to North Korea due to the critical threat of wrongful detention.”
Considering Kim is making the country’s diplomatic decisions, coupled with the fact that Travis King is a Black American, the history of racist leanings from the nation’s leader can’t be ignored. Lest we forget that Kim has defended calling Obama a “wicked black monkey” and befriended former U.S. President Donald Trump, who frequently espouses racist views.
Kim also has a checkered past when it comes to other forms of diplomacy with the U.S., including the handling of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being released in a vegetative state following imprisonment in North Korea.
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