Why US soldier’s defection could create headache for North Korea
Travis King is likely to become a pawn in a struggle dating back to the Cold War and the 1950-53 Korean War
Seoul — North Korea is likely to milk the border crossing by a US soldier for propaganda purposes but will probably not gain political leverage, say analysts and a former North Korean diplomat.
Pyongyang may even end up paying a lot to keep US Army Private Travis King in a gilded cage, they said. King’s fate was unclear on Wednesday, a day after he dashed into North Korea during a tour of the tightly controlled Joint Security Area (JSA) on the border between the two Koreas.
US officials said they believe King crossed the border intentionally. The North Koreans detained him.
Whether a prisoner or a defector, King is likely to become a pawn in a struggle dating back to the Cold War and the 1950-53 Korean War, analysts said.
Analysts said discussions on the soldier’s fate could cause the first diplomatic engagement between North Korea and the US in years. But they see little chance the incident will affect stalled denuclearisation talks or crack the North’s lingering isolation after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Pyongyang has never really been able to use such cases for geopolitical leverage, said Andrei Lankov, director of the Seoul-based Korea Risk Group.
“I cannot recall a case when they managed to use it as leverage to extract serious concessions, but domestically they have some gains because their propaganda presents it as another failure of another American provocation, with the American imperialists on their knees begging for forgiveness,” he said.
Much will depend on whether North Korea views it as a propaganda opportunity, or whether it wants to focus on the “illegal” nature of the crossing and treat him as a criminal with bad intentions, said Rachel Minyoung Lee of the US-based Stimson Center.
“I do not think North Korea views the latest incident as strong leverage or an opportunity to engage [with] the US,” she said.
“North Korea knows that the US government is unlikely to change its North Korea policy or its commitment to US extended deterrence because of one US soldier who reportedly faced disciplinary action and wilfully crossed into North Korea.”
Former North Korean diplomat Tae Yong-ho, now a South Korean MP, said holding an American soldier is probably not very cost-effective and can be a headache for the North in the long run.
When US soldiers defect, North Korea has to create a security and surveillance team for them, and arrange an interpreter, a private vehicle, driver and lodging, he said.
“In their daily lives, they couldn’t go out for shopping in downtown Pyongyang by themselves, let alone travel abroad,” Tae said of other US soldiers who defected decades ago.
King might have some military intelligence but not much value given his low rank, he said.
Pyongyang has a standard playbook for treating American and other Western detainees or defectors well to avoid political blowback, Lankov said, with the notable exception of US college student Otto Warmbier, who died in 2017 soon after being freed from a North Korea prison.
He said the chances are low that King would face the same kind of fatal treatment as Warmbier because that was a one-off event that led only to problems for North Korea’s leaders.
“They treat Western citizens dramatically different from how they treat their own citizens,” said Lankov.
Detainees are often housed in the North Korean equivalent of a four-star hotel, he said.
“Their conditions are better not only than the average North Korean prisoner, but of the average North Korean citizen.”
From the government’s point of view it makes perfect sense to torture and kill, or at least make life as unpleasant as possible, for domestic opposition or criminals, “because people should be terrified”, he said. “But if they treat the foreigners in the same way, it almost definitely backfires.”
Still, North Korea’s lingering paranoia over the pandemic makes it hard to predict how they may act now, he said.
North Korean border guards fatally shot and burnt the body of a South Korean fisheries official in 2020, and later leader Kim Jong-un ordered an entire city into lockdown when a North Korean crossed back into the country from the South.
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