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Pyongyang mum on status of U.S. soldier who crossed into North Korea, Washington says

The history of rough treatment of Americans detained by North Koreans — including the 2017 death of a 22-year-old student after he was flown home in a vegetative state after 17 months in captivity — is top of mind as U.S. officials seek answers about Pvt. Travis King.

White House expresses deep concern for well-being of Pte. Travis King

A person is pictured in a selfie.

The White House on Thursday expressed deep concern about the well-being of a U.S. soldier who bolted across the heavily armed North Korea border earlier this week as North Korean officials have yet to respond to U.S. requests for basic information about the AWOL soldier.

The history of rough treatment of Americans detained by North Koreans — including the 2017 death of a 22-year-old student after he was flown home in a vegetative state after 17 months in captivity — is top of mind as U.S. officials seek answers about Pte. Travis King.

"This is not a country that is known for humane treatment of Americans or actually anybody else for that matter," White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said. "We don't know where he is. We don't know the conditions in which he's living right now. And it's the not knowing that is deeply concerning to us and we're trying as best we can to get as much information as we can about him."

Without mentioning the soldier, North Korea's defence minister issued a veiled threat Thursday, suggesting the docking of a nuclear-armed U.S. submarine in South Korea could be grounds for a nuclear attack by the North. North Korea has used such rhetoric before, but the latest threat could signal just how strained ties are right now.

King, who was supposed to be on his way to Fort Bliss, Texas, after finishing a prison sentence in South Korea for assault, ran into North Korea while on a civilian tour of the border village of Panmunjom on Tuesday. He is the first known American held in North Korea in nearly five years.

A group of tourists are seen on a road as people in military garb are seen further along.

According to a U.S. official, King — who chose to serve his time at a labour camp rather than pay the nearly $4,000 US fine — has been declared AWOL. The punishment for being away without leave can include confinement in the brig, forfeiture of pay or dishonourable discharge and it is largely based on how long they were away and whether they were apprehended or returned on their own. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

King, 23, has not been declared a deserter, which is a far more serious offence. Often the military waits for a period of time to see if a service member returns, but that is very uncertain in this case. Desertion can result in imprisonment of as much as three years, and — in times of war — can carry the death penalty.

Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters on Thursday that King was not escorted all the way to the gate because he was not in custody and there was no anticipation that he would not get on the plane to go home.

Military personnel escorted him to the passport control area and were not allowed to go farther than that. Singh said he confirmed to the U.S. military that he was near the gate. King knew he was returning to Texas to face likely discharge.

A person in a wheelchair and a person standing hold up a photo of a soldier.

Asked if King is alive, Singh said the U.S. does not know his health condition.

She said it is "not our assessment" that King represents a security threat or liability, when asked if he had intelligence that North Korea would want. She added that the department has no indication that King's decision to run into North Korea was pre-planned or organized with Pyongyang.

Asked whether the U.S. feared that King could be mistreated or tortured by the North, Kirby responded that North Korea is a "brutal regime" but that the U.S. is still not in position to confirm how he is being treated.

No diplomatic ties between U.S., North Korea

The U.S. and North Korea, which fought during the 1950-53 Korean War, are still technically at war since that conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, and have no diplomatic ties. Sweden provided consular services for Americans in past cases, but Swedish diplomatic staff reportedly haven't returned since North Korea ordered foreigners to leave the country at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea has previously held a number of Americans who were arrested for anti-state, espionage and other charges. But no other Americans were known to be detained since North Korea expelled American Bruce Byron Lowrance in 2018. During the Cold War, a small number of U.S. soldiers who fled to North Korea later appeared in North Korean propaganda films.

Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was seized by North Korean authorities from a tour group in January 2016 and convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. He served 17 months before being returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state.

While not providing a clear reason for Warmbier's brain damage, North Korea denied accusations by Warmbier's family that he was tortured and insisted it had provided him medical care with "all sincerity."

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