U.S. officials revealed further details about Travis King’s situation prior to his escape into North Korea while admitting that Washington has not yet made contact with its counterparts in the Hermit Kingdom.
“I don’t think very much is known,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said at the Aspen Security Forum, admitting that she didn’t think the U.S. had “successfully made contact with the North Korean authorities.”
“What we certainly know is he did willfully, essentially, you know, run across into North Korean territory, as has been reported,” she noted.
King, an Army private 2nd class, was seen sprinting across the Military Demarcation Line separating North and South Korea on Tuesday while viewing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) alongside a group of tourists. Eyewitnesses said they saw him smiling as he ran and thought it was some sort of “stunt” for social media.
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King had just finished about two months in a South Korean detention facility following a physical altercation with locals. Wormuth said she “worried” about King and his safety, recalling the tragedy of Otto Warmbier.
Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed on Wednesday that King was alive and in North Korean custody, but she could confirm no other information.
Singh did confirm to Fox News Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin that King was not in custody when authorities escorted him through the airport, where they had left him to reach the gate and where he made his escape to the DMZ.
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Singh also refused to use the word “defect” to describe King’s actions, saying that military authorities needed to conduct an investigation, but she did note that King’s status is “absent without leave.”
“I’m cautious to use that word. That’s something that the investigation will yield,” she said.
Wormuth stressed that the priority remains to bring King back to the U.S. “regardless of the fact that there’s misconduct” while acknowledging that he will “absolutely” have faced “additional consequences” including potential jail time for the assault.
“The Department of Defense, the State Department, the White House, we’re using U.N. channels, have been reaching out to the DPRK to get information about his status and to work with them to . . . bring him back,” she said.
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She did not want to be drawn on further “speculation” about King, particularly since Kim Jong-un and the country’s legislative assembly have not addressed the situation publicly through state media organizations or government offices.
“I don’t think people knew what was in his mind,” she said, noting that he likely had “a lot of negative feelings” about his time in the South Korean jail. “He may not have been thinking clearly, frankly, but we just don’t know. And I don’t want to speculate further.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Matt Miller said that the case remains an “extremely high priority” for the administration, with all departments working to “ascertain information about the well-being and whereabouts” of King.
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“I will say that we retain a number of channels through which we can send messages to the DPRK,” Miller said. “As I said yesterday, those discussions are quite sensitive, such discussions are quite sensitive.”
“I’m not going to go into further details at this time, but we remain engaged in this matter, and it is a priority for us to seek his safe return,” he added.
Fox News’ Liz Friden and Nick Kalman contributed to this report.