Four days after a U.S. soldier was taken into North Korean custody, mystery still swirls over why he decided to flee across the border into the intensely isolated, authoritarian country.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said she fears for Pvt. Travis King's safety, as the fates of other American prisoners in North Korea have been grim, including Virginia college student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned and eventually released by the North in 2017 in a vegetative state. He died days after returning to the U.S.
"What we want to do is get that soldier back into our custody. I worry about him, frankly," Wormuth said Thursday during the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. "It makes me very, very concerned that Pvt. King is in the hands of the North Korean authorities. I worry about how they may treat him."
North Korea has detained at least 20 Americans in the past 30 years. Many described being tortured during captivity.
In 2016, Warmbier was a college student on a guided tour in North Korea. He was imprisoned over allegations he attempted to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. While in custody, he fell into a coma and never recovered.
King, a cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division, was on a nine-month rotation to South Korea, where he apparently had legal troubles.
In October, he got into an altercation with locals and damaged a police car; he was detained and spent 47 days in a South Korean prison. When he was released, he was set to be sent back to his home base of Fort Bliss, Texas.
There, he was expected to face additional disciplinary actions through the Army. King was escorted to a South Korean airport up until customs. But instead of boarding the plane, he left and joined a civilian tour of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between South Korea and North Korea.
King sprinted across the border and was immediately detained by North Korean authorities.
"He may not have been thinking clearly, frankly, but we just don't know," Wormuth said, adding that virtually nothing is known about King's status.
The Biden administration has tried to reach the North Korean government about King but received no contact.
It's unclear whether King could be used by the North Korean government as a bargaining chip or propaganda. King would not have any useful knowledge on U.S. military operations, given his junior status in the service.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.