A “conversation has commenced” with North Korea over US Army Pvt. Travis King, who crossed the border between North and South Korea last week in the demilitarized zone separating the two nations, the deputy commander of the United Nations Command (UNC) said Monday.
King, believed to be the first US soldier to cross into North Korea since 1982, had a history of assault, was facing disciplinary action over his conduct and was meant to go back to the US the day before the incident.
Gen. Andrew Harrison said the case of King is still under investigation and he could not provide further detail on the private, who the US military said “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea while taking a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area, a small collection of buildings inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has separated North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
“There is a mechanism that exists under the armistice agreement, whereby lines of communication are open between the UNC and the Korean People’s Army, and that takes place in the JSA. That process has started,” Harrison told journalists at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club.
He acknowledged that the answers he could provide were “disappointing,” but “I’m constrained by what I can say.”
“You may not get the answers for what you’re desperate for,” Harrison told the journalists.
The UN Command was making King’s welfare its primary concern as the process goes forward, he said.
“Obviously, there is so much welfare at stake, and clearly we’re in a very difficult and complex situation which I don’t want to risk by speculation or going into too much detail about the communications that are existing,” he said.
Two US officials told CNN that North Korea acknowledged the reach out by the United Nations Command regarding the King case.
The State Department has not received a response to its messages on King, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said Monday. He also said it was his understanding that the US military had not received a response.
On the UN side, Miller said it was his understanding “that there have been no new communications since last week, communications that happened in the early days,” but that the North Korean government had acknowledged receipt of the message. “My understanding is that the North Koreans acknowledge they received the message.”
“I’m not aware of any new communications, other than those that happened in the very early hours, early days after he went across the border,” Miller said at a State Department briefing Monday.
The UNC is a multinational military force that includes the United States which fought on the side of South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.
It controls the South Korean side of the JSA, the one place where the North and South can meet for talks.
King has not been publicly seen or heard from since he crossed into North Korea last Tuesday. North Korea has also not said anything about the status or condition of the missing soldier.
His reasoning for crossing the border into one of the world’s most authoritarian places – and a country which the US does not have diplomatic relations with – has so far remained a mystery.
A US Army official told CNN the private was set to be administratively separated from the service when he returned to Fort Bliss in Texas.
But before he could board an American Airlines flight from Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul last Monday, King bolted.
“He passed through all the security points up to the boarding gate but he told the airline staff that his passport was missing,” an official at the Incheon airport told CNN. The airline staff then escorted him back outside to the departure side, the official said.
King had reservations for a Joint Security Area tour for the next day and somehow made it to the excursion, joining other tourists as they went into the DMZ and the Joint Security Area, where he then ran into North Korea.
CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Oren Liebermann contributed reporting.