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[News Focus] G.I. detained in NK new headache in relations

Ball is in N. Korea's court, but how it is going to respond is uncertain

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : July 20, 2023 - 17:40

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South Korean and US security guards stand side by side in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom within the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, in July 2022. (Photo - Joint Press Corps) South Korean and US security guards stand side by side in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom within the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, in July 2022. (Photo - Joint Press Corps)

A very rare case of a US soldier crossing the inter-Korean border has put Washington and Pyongyang in an awkward situation, as their relations have been at rock bottom for years. Eyes are now on how North Korea will handle the tricky issue, according to experts in South Korea.

It's still unclear how North Korea will respond to the crossing into its territory of US soldier Travis King -- a private second class since 2021 – that occurred Tuesday in the highly sensitive Joint Security Area.

North Korea's response to the case could have significant implications for US-North Korea relations. It may either add a new layer of complexity, further straining relations, or potentially serve as a catalyst to cool down heightened tensions.

But the ball is in North Korea's court, experts said, and suggested three possible options: swift repatriation after investigation, a bilateral resolution with the US, or long-term detention for propaganda and political leverage.

A crucial factor that may influence North Korea's decision regarding the detained US soldier is the assessment of whether the soldier possesses strategic value and valuable information.

"North Korea would likely recognize the potential value in utilizing the US soldier as a means to advance its desired agenda or gain benefits in future dialogue and negotiations with the US," Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University, told The Korea Herald.

"However, from North Korea's standpoint, conducting thorough investigations to ascertain the soldier’s true intentions is currently a top priority. Based on their understanding of the situation, appropriate actions will be taken by North Korea."

Cheong Seong-chang, the director of the Department of Reunification Strategic Studies at the Sejong Institute, said there was a possibility that North Korea may detain the US soldier for an extended period if he possesses valuable information on the US troops stationed in South Korea.

"But in my opinion, due to the soldier's lower rank, it is unlikely that he would have highly classified information on the US Forces Korea," Cheong said.

Another key variable is the COVID-19 pandemic, which adds another layer of complexity to the situation.

"North Korea, which has not fully embraced the policy of living with COVID-19, is likely to minimize contact with outsiders. If North Korea does not find significant value in retaining the US soldier, there is a high possibility that it might choose to expel him instead."

This photo taken from the truce village of Panmunjom in July 2022, shows the landscape of North Korea's Kijong-dong, a This photo taken from the truce village of Panmunjom in July 2022, shows the landscape of North Korea's Kijong-dong, a

Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at the South Korean government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification took note that North Korea would make a careful assessment, given that this case differs from instances of detaining foreign individuals suspected of espionage or tourists violating local laws.

"The Joint Security Area was established as a part of the Korea Armistice Agreement, and it operates under the framework of the armistice system," Hong said.

North Korea could handle the fleeing of the US soldier differently due to the JSA's diplomatic and political implications. It might cooperate with the UN Command, overseeing the JSA, to facilitate the soldier's return.

"North Korea could find it challenging to deal with this case in the same manner as they did in the past, by detaining or imprisoning individuals who crossed the border or were tourists," Hong added.

The death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in North Korea for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster and passed away at the age of 22 in 2017, would also affect the Kim Jong-un regime's calculations.

Experts said the Kim Jong-un regime may be cautious about further worsening its reputation as a human rights violator, especially after the international backlash following Warmbier’s death.

"North Korea may find it challenging to disregard the negative perception of human rights abuses associated with the country," Hong said. "As a result, there could be a potential for North Korea to shift its focus toward a more diplomatic approach when dealing with the matter and the repatriation of the US soldier."

But some experts raised concerns about North Korea potentially using the US soldier in custody as a propaganda tool.

"The reason behind the fleeing may be crucial, but North Korea could still exploit the situation to serve its propaganda objectives," said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University.

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN 737) proceeds on the surface to Busan for a port visit while escorted by Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS John Finn (DDG 113) and USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114) on Tuesday. (Photo - US Navy) The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN 737) proceeds on the surface to Busan for a port visit while escorted by Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS John Finn (DDG 113) and USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114) on Tuesday. (Photo - US Navy)

The US soldier's crossing into North Korea has occurred at a sensitive time, coinciding with the arrival of the US Navy’s nuclear-capable submarine in the South Korean port city of Busan, the first such visit since the 1980s. On the same day, Seoul and Washington also held an inaugural meeting of the new Nuclear Consultative Group to jointly develop scenarios and response protocols in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack.

Amid heightened tensions, it may be challenging for the US to reach out to North Korea to address the diplomatic and humanitarian issue.

"Given the current confrontational situation between North Korea and the US, meaningful contacts and outcomes are likely to require a significant amount of time to materialize should they take place," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Yang said the US anticipates the repatriation process to be handled through the UN Command and New York channels. However, it remains uncertain whether the US will be able to dispatch a high-level special envoy to bring back the soldier, as it has done in the past on certain occasions.

On the matter of communication, the US State Department on Wednesday confirmed that North Korea has not responded to the attempts made by the US Defense Department to establish contact to address the issue.

Yang also pointed out that the "US faces a dilemma between protecting its citizens and strengthening extended deterrence against North Korea," adding that it may also have an impact on South Korea's North Korea policy during the period.

But experts concur that the border crossing of the US soldier is unlikely to prompt the resumption of dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, which has been suspended since 2019. Furthermore, the incident is not expected to act as a turning point in bilateral relations.

Oh Gyeong-seob, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, highlighted the significant gap between Washington and Pyongyang on core security issues, particularly regarding denuclearization, which appears challenging to bridge.

The US advocates for dialogue with North Korea without any preconditions, aiming for complete denuclearization as the ultimate goal. However, North Korea maintains its stance of retaining its nuclear weapons and demands concessions from the US, such as the lifting of sanctions, while stating that it cannot give up its nuclear arsenal.

"Due to the lack of significant willingness for concessions from both North Korea and the US, the incident is unlikely to directly lead to the resumption of nuclear talks between the two countries," Oh said.

"As a result, the incident is not expected to have a substantial impact on the current situation or serve as a catalyst for resuming any dialogue related to the North Korean nuclear issue."

Lim pointed out that "such an incident would be more useful if there were a certain level of mutual trust between the two countries."

"Given the current deep level of mistrust, it becomes challenging for the incident to serve as a useful card or catalyst for any positive developments in their relationship."