North Korea has announced that it will expel Travis King, the US soldier who crossed the heavily fortified border into North Korean territory in July. The incident had sparked international speculation about the motives of the 23-year-old serviceman, who reportedly harbored ill feelings about the treatment and racial discrimination he experienced in the US army. After weeks of silence, Pyongyang confirmed that King was being held in detention and had been seeking asylum in North Korea or a third country. Concerns have been raised about his wellbeing, given North Korea’s harsh treatment of American detainees in the past.
The decision to release King comes as South Korea’s conservative government plans to increase criticism of North Korea’s human rights record. However, it remains unclear why North Korea has now chosen to expel King and how his return will be arranged. In the past, Sweden has represented US interests in Pyongyang, as there are no formal diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea. It is worth noting that about 20 US citizens have been detained by North Korea since the Korean War, often used for propaganda purposes before being handed over to high-level US delegations.
This development coincides with North Korea’s ongoing efforts to reopen and end its self-imposed isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country is slowly easing its stringent restrictions, signaling a belated reopening after years of isolation. Given the secrecy surrounding North Korea’s treatment of detainees and the tense relations between the US and North Korea, the circumstances surrounding King’s expulsion and his future remain uncertain.