WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 (Korea Bizwire) — North Korea’s release of a U.S. soldier after months of detention for a border crossing is raising questions over whether it would lead to direct reengagement between Washington and Pyongyang or at least a warming of their strained ties.
U.S. officials confirmed Wednesday that Pvt. Travis King was transferred out of the North across the border with China, flew to Osan Air Base, a U.S. installation in South Korea, and was on his way back to the United States.
The release ended Washington’s monthslong diplomatic effort that was set in motion after King made an unauthorized trip across the inter-Korean border into the North during a tour of the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone separating the Korean Peninsula on July 18.
Earlier, the official Korean Central News Agency reported that the North decided to “expel” King following an investigation, during which it said the U.S. soldier confessed to his “illegal” intrusion into the North Korean territory.
The release, which U.S. officials said was secured without any concessions, raised questions over whether it was the North’s conciliatory gesture or a move to quickly get rid of what could be a major source of friction with Washington.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller did not appear to have high expectations about diplomatic ramifications of the North’s decision to set King free.
“I do not see this as a sign of any diplomatic breakthrough that will have implications for other issues and other areas of concern that we have with the DPRK regime,” he told reporters, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The release, however, came as U.S. officials continued to reiterate Washington’s willingness to engage in diplomacy with Pyongyang.
During his U.N. General Assembly speech, President Joe Biden said that his administration is committed to diplomacy to bring out the denuclearization of the peninsula. Other senior U.S. officials made similar remarks.
“This incident to our minds demonstrate that keeping lines of communication open even when ties are strained is a really important thing to do and can deliver results,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity. “We again stand by … ready for any further diplomacy that might be possible.”
Direct diplomatic talks between the U.S. and the North have been stalled since the two countries held working-level nuclear talks in Sweden in October 2019 in the wake of the bilateral no-deal summit in Hanoi in February that year.
The COVID-19 pandemic further darkened the prospects of reengagement between the two countries as the reclusive country, known for poor medical and economic conditions, had closed borders to fend off any inflow of the virus.
But the North reportedly lifted its border closures on Monday, fueling speculation that it may set out to engage in more diplomatic exchanges with the outside world.
Patrick M. Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to expel the U.S. soldier is “more like an expedient rather than a conciliatory gesture.”
“Kim Jong-un does not want to take responsibility for Travis King, and the risks of keeping him outweigh any further benefits,” he told Yonhap News via email. “However, if Washington also wants to see this as a sign of goodwill, then Pyongyang may be more open to talks now than it has been since before Covid.”
Frank Aum, senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, did not see the release as a conciliatory move either.
“I see it as just North Korea expelling a foreigner that it saw as having no value and potentially being a headache,” he said, noting that the release within a few months without any concessions is “normal.”
“When U.S. citizens are detained by North Korea but haven’t committed anything perceived to be a serious crime, North Korea tends to release them within a couple months,” he pointed out.
The complicated process to secure King’s release brought into sharp relief the diplomatic estrangement between Washington and Pyongyang and also underscored a difficult road ahead for the restoration of the relations.
U.S. officials said that Sweden, as the “protecting power” and “primary interlocutor,” helped Washington secure King’s release while China facilitated the safe transfer of King across the border.
“When Travis King first crossed the border into North Korea, we tried to reach out (to the North) on a number of occasions. They rejected our direct approaches and ended up talking to Sweden,” Miller said.
Some observers, however, said that King’s release could at least serve as an opportunity to reassess relations between the U.S. and the North, though tensions have been heightened following a recent summit between North Korean leader Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The summit raised speculation that it might lead to an arms deal that would help improve the North’s technological capabilities to build spy satellites and other weapons in exchange for supporting Russia’s war operations in Ukraine.