North Korea Says U.S. Soldier Travis King Sprinted Across Border Over Army Mistreatment

North Korea said Wednesday that an American soldier’s frantic dash across the Korean border last month was driven by “inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. army,” according to a state media report.

The announcement, delivered through the reclusive nation’s only news agency, is the first public acknowledgement by Pyongyang that Private 2nd Class Travis Scott is in North Korean custody.

The government-controlled Korean Central News Agency said that the 23-year-old soldier “admitted” to investigators that he’d “illegally intruded” into North Korea. King reportedly confessed he’d decided to cross the border “as he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army.”

“He also expressed his willingness to seek refugee in the DPRK or a third country,” the report continued, “saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”

A spokesperson for the Pentagon said Tuesday it could not verify King’s alleged comments. “We remain focused on his safe return,” the spokesperson said, according to Reuters. “The Department’s priority is to bring Private King home, and that we are working through all available channels to achieve that outcome.”

King “willfully and without authorization” ran across the military demarcation line separating South Korea from North Korea on July 18, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin put it to reporters last month. After breaking away from his civilian tour group and evading guards who gave chase, he was seen climbing into a van and being driven away by North Korean authorities, who did not immediately comment on the incident.

On Aug. 3, Pyongyang “responded” to United Nations officials who requested information about King’s status, according to the Pentagon, but no further details were offered at the time.

Eight days before crossing the border, King had been released from a South Korean detention facility where he had spent the past seven weeks, according to the Associated Press. South Korean media reported that King’s detention came after he allegedly punched a local in the face at a nightclub last September. Two weeks later, he got into an altercation with South Korean police, and allegedly kicked his legs and yelled obscenities after being placed in a patrol car, damaging the vehicle.

The 23-year-old was convicted of assault, and chose to serve time at a labor camp rather than pay a fine equivalent to nearly $4,000. After his release, he was handed over to U.S. officials, who planned to return him to the United States to face “additional consequences,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said last month.

“I worry about him, frankly,” Wormuth added while speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, according to CNN. “I know everyone here remembers what happened when Otto Warmbier was taken into custody by the North Koreans and I think treated brutally. Obviously, you know, it makes me very, very concerned that Private King is in the hands of the North Korean authorities, I worry about how they may treat him. So we want to get him back.”

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