North Korea says Travis King wants to stay there for refuge from US Army ‘discrimination’

US Army soldier Travis King (VIA REUTERS)

North Korea has claimed that American soldier Travis King wanted refuge in another country to escape “inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” in the US and the military.

This is Pyongyang’s first public acknowledgment of Mr King’s presence in its territory since he crossed from South Korea on 18 July.

Mr King was traveling with a tour group to the border between North and South Korea when he ran across and surrendered himself to North Korean forces.

He had previously been detained for more than 40 days on an assault and destruction of private property conviction in South Korea. He was scheduled to return home, but skipped on his return trip, after which he fled into the North.

“During the investigation, Travis King confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK as he harboured ill feelings against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army,” the state-run news agency KCNA said on Wednesday.

“He also expressed his willingness to seek refugee in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”

It added that Mr King was “kept under control by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army” and they are still probing the circumstances surrounding Mr King.

While Mr King’s comments could not be independently verified, his uncle, Myron Gates, told ABC News earlier in August that his nephew was experiencing racism during his military deployment, and after he spent time in a South Korean jail, he did not sound like himself.

While the US officials claim that North Korea has so far not given a substantive response to the information request, the Pentagon added that they could not verify Mr King’s statements either.

“We remain focused on his safe return,” a Pentagon spokesperson said. “The department’s priority is to bring Private King home, and that we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome.”

“It’s also an opportunity for the regime propaganda to do its thing – to spin the situation in such a way as to criticise the US and express Pyongyang’s deep-rooted hostility towards Washington,” said Soo Kim, an expert with Virginia-based consultancy LMI and a former CIA analyst.

Earlier, Mr King had pleaded guilty to assault and damaging a police car while shouting profanities at Koreans, according to court documents.

Beginning on 24 May, Mr King was sentenced to serve in a labour camp at the Cheonan correctional facility, which is intended to house US military members and other foreigners who are convicted of crimes in South Korea.

Mr King was slated to face disciplinary action upon his return to his home base at Fort Bliss in Texas.

Additional reporting from the wires