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North Korea says a U.S. soldier crossed its border because of the racism in America

A TV screen shows a file image of U.S. soldier Travis King during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023.
Ahn Young-joon
A TV screen shows a file image of U.S. soldier Travis King during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023.

Updated August 16, 2023 at 2:22 PM ET

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea says that a U.S. soldier who entered the country from South Korea was fleeing abuse and racism in the U.S. military. It marks the North's first public confirmation of the incident since 23-year-old Travis King crossed the border last month.

The official Korean Central News Agency said that initial findings of an official investigation showed that King admitted to entering the North illegally, and that he was motivated by "ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army."

It added that he was willing to seek refuge in North Korea or a third country because he was "disillusioned" about inequality in American society.

KCNA is North Korea's only news agency; KCNA and all other North Korean media are state-owned and run. North Korea ranked last out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Responding to Pyongyang's statement, Washington said it could not verify the comments attributed to King.

"We remain focused on his safe return," a State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday, adding: "The Department's priority is to bring Private King home, and we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome."

King was arrested last October and convicted of assaulting a South Korean citizen, damaging police vehicles and verbally abusing police officers while intoxicated. He refused to pay a fine and was detained by South Korean authorities this spring.

King joined the U.S. Army in 2021, and was a private 2nd class and cavalry scout with the 1st Armored Division. He was to return to his unit in the U.S., but skipped the flight, and joined a tour of the demilitarized zone on the border between the two Koreas. He then crossed the border and was apparently detained by North Korean authorities.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, a handful of U.S. soldiers have crossed over into North Korea, and sometimes been used in North Korean propaganda. North Korea often points to racism and inequality in U.S. society, as it defends its own human rights record from international criticism.

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, and therefore no consular access to King. The Swedish Embassy provides some consular services to U.S. citizens in North Korea, but most foreign diplomats left Pyongyang during COVID, and have yet to return.

Vincent Ni reported from Washington, D.C.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.