North Korea has not yet responded to the mystery surrounding United States Army Pvt. Travis T. King’s decision to flee across the inter-Korean border on Tuesday, and it may not comment on the case for days, or even months.
Although North Korea has yet to acknowledge that it has Private King in its custody, given its past practices with other American detainees, much of its response will likely be determined by Mr. King’s motive.
American soldiers who have deserted into North Korea in the past have been accepted as defectors who renounced capitalist ideology and have been allowed by the authorities in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to live in the country. Americans accused of illegal entry are held in detention and are sometimes released and expelled, or prosecuted and sentenced to hard labor.
No matter the scenario, North Korea has treated such Americans as propaganda tools against the United States, and in some cases it has tried to use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with Washington, which has no formal diplomatic ties with the North.
The Pentagon has only said that Mr. King dashed across the inter-Korean border into North Korea “willfully and without authorization” while he was on a group tour of the Joint Security Area, or Panmunjom, which lies in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South.
The United States and North Korea are still technically at war, and relations between the two have deteriorated since diplomacy between President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, fell apart in 2019.
Mr. King, 23, had been assigned to South Korea as a member of the First Brigade Combat Team, First Armored Division. After he was released earlier this month from a South Korean detention center, where he spent time on assault charges, he was escorted by U.S. military personnel to Incheon International Airport outside Seoul on Monday to board a plane to the United States, where he was expected to face additional disciplinary action.
He never boarded the plane. Instead, he took a tour bus to Panmunjom the next day.
In the North, American detainees have undergone extensive interrogations and are often forced to participate in government-organized news conferences where they apologize for “hostile acts” and perform over-the-top displays of contrition. Detainees who were subsequently released have said that these apologies are often scripted by the North Korean government.
American soldiers who have deserted or defected across the DMZ have sometimes appeared in propaganda films and have even been allowed to start families in the country.
“Up until the 1970s, when American soldiers defected, North Korea used to hold welcoming rallies in Pyongyang, where officials gave them flowers and gifts like a house, while the soldiers denounced ‘American imperialism,’” Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector living in Seoul, told The New York Times on Thursday.
But, Mr. Ahn added, ordinary North Koreans typically had no contact with these American soldiers, and only saw them in propaganda films, where they were cast as evil American military officers during the Korean War.
American defectors “are very useful for North Korean filmmakers because no matter how hard they try to make Korean actors look like Americans, they don’t look American,” Mr. Ahn said. “Since North Korea is running out of Americans to cast for its movies, Private King could prove a valuable asset.”
The last time an American soldier deserted into North Korea was in 1982. In the past, most, if not all, of the United States soldiers who have fled into the country have been white. Mr. King, however, is Black, which some North Korean defectors living in South Korea said may influence how he is treated.
“North Korea is a deeply racist country,” said Ahn Myeong-cheol, a former North Korean soldier who lives in the South. “It’s hard to imagine how North Korea would use a Black soldier in propaganda.”
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in South Korea, suggested that Pyongyang might try to use Mr. King to depict the United States as a divided, racist society while also trying to extract from him as much information as possible about the American military.
North Korea, which has not fully let down its guard against the coronavirus, is extremely wary of foreigners entering its territory. When it found a South Korean fisheries official adrift in its waters in 2020, soldiers shot him dead and were accused by the South of burning his body for fear of infection.
North Korea’s border is still shut, and its continued pandemic restrictions make it unlikely that Pyongyang would invite a high-profile American delegation into the country to retrieve Mr. King, as it did with some previous American detainees, Mr. Cheong added.
“North Korea may expel him at some point,” he said. “From the available information, it doesn’t seem likely that Private King defected to the North because he fell in love with the North Korean system. More likely, he fled to the North to avoid punishment.”
In South Korea, some expressed their disbelief over Mr. King’s decision to flee into the North, as well as the possible security loopholes at the Joint Security Area.
“I get that he was scared to go to the States to face his punishment, but he might get stuck in North Korea,” said Lee Jay-hyung, a 35-year-old consultant in Seoul. “It was a stupid move.”
Jin Yu Young contributed reporting from Seoul.