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North Korea claims American soldier ‘sought refuge’ after illegally crossing border

North Korea has claimed that an American soldier who made a dramatic crossing into the country from South Korea last month expressed a wish to “seek refuge” after illegally crossing the heavily fortified border.

The rogue state has maintained weeks of silence on the fate of Private Travis T. King, 23, who made a dash across the border into North Korea on 18 July after joining a tour of the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the two countries.

North Korean state media agency KCNA reported on Tuesday that investigators have concluded that King crossed deliberately and illegally, with the intent to stay in the North or in a third country.

“During the investigation, Travis King confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK [North Korea] as he harboured ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US Army,” KCNA reported. “He also expressed his willingness to seek refuge in the DPRK or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”

North Korea says an investigation into King would continue.

King, who was deployed in South Korea but had previously been jailed for assaulting a person in Seoul, was in the process of being removed back to the US for disciplinary reasons last month when he absconded from the airport – before managing to join a civilian tour group.

The group embarked on a visit to a historic site, the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom, where he made a run for the border, with tour guides giving chase but failing to catch him before he made it to North Korea.

His fate in North Korean custody was unclear following the incident, with the reclusive state maintaining no diplomatic relations with the US.

United Nations Command said earlier this month that North Korea had confirmed the soldier was in its custody, though the body declined to give more details because it “did not want to interfere with the efforts to bring him home”.

The United States and North Korea technically remain at war, given the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, but Reuters reported earlier this month that King was not being classified as a prisoner of war by the US.

A Pentagon spokesperson said the defense department’s priority was to bring him home and it was working to achieve that through all available channels.

King’s mother, Claudine Gates said she just wanted “him to come home”.

In 2017, US student Otto Warmbier died after being returned to the US from North Korea in a comatose state. The 22-year-old had been held in captivity for more than 15 months, having originally been sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for attempting to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel.

North Korea said botulism and a sleeping pill led to the coma, but US doctors disputed this account.

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