U.S. Soldier Sallies Across Demilitarized Zone, North Korea Declares “New Cold War”

U.S. Soldier Sallies Across Demilitarized Zone, North Korea Declares “New Cold War”

Madeleine Kim, University of Minnesota Law School


On July 27, 2023, the United States (“U.S.”),[1] United Nations,[2] the Republic of Korea (“ROK” or “South Korea”),[3] and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK” or “North Korea”) marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement[4] which ended active hostilities in the Korean War.[5] Only nine days earlier, a US service member, Private 2nd Class Travis King, ran across the heavily fortified two-and-a-half mile-wide border area between the two nations known as the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”).[6] King crossed the border while on a tour of the Joint Security Area, which is the southern portion of the DMZ jointly administered by United Nations, US and ROK forces, in an area known as the Panmunjom or Peace Village, which includes a series of cross-border conference buildings where the 1953 Armistice Agreement was signed.[7] Panmunjom has become a tourist attraction, as it is one of the few places where it is possible to briefly step across the border into the DPRK—and many companies run private tours to the site—it has been ranked as the #10 Best Thing to Do in Seoul by US News and World Reports.[8] It was on one such tour that King broke away from his group and ran across the border.[9]

Prior to his dash across the border, King had been sentenced to labor in a South Korean prison workshop from May 24th to July 10th after failing to pay a fine[10] related to charges of assault and destroying public property for damaging a police car by kicking the door “during a profanity-laced tirade against Koreans” according to court documents obtained by Reuters.[11] On July 17th, King was escorted to Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul to be returned to the U.S. However, after leaving his escort at customs, King managed to return to Seoul and join a civilian tour group to the DMZ the next day.[12] About an hour into the tour, King ran through a gap between members of the ROK military guarding the southern edge of the border.[13] The guards pursued him until he crossed the concrete Military Demarcation Line that bisects the conference huts and marks the border between the South and the North.[14] King then continued towards the back of a DPRK military building and was then driven away in a van by members of the North Korean military.[15]

After a lengthy period of silence, the Korean Central News Agency (“KCNA”), the state news agency of the DPRK, issued a statement claiming that King had “admitted that he illegally intruded into the territory of the DPRK” and had confessed that as a Black soldier he “harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army” and was “disillusioned at the unequal American society.”[16] Despite this initial approach, many observers speculated that King’s legal troubles would limit his utility as a propaganda tool for the North.[17] Historically, defectors have played an important role as domestic and international propaganda figures—North Korea under former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il had a burgeoning film industry sometimes populated by kidnapped South Korean artists[18]—and American defectors often portrayed the villains in films designed to reinforce the anti-American party line.[19] In recent years, the DPRK’s nuclear program has overtaken the film industry as a useful domestic propaganda tool; furthermore as a non-white individual propagandists may not have considered King to be representative enough of America to be useful.[20] A former North Korean spy who defected to the South noted that “in North Korea, where the government has long touted a supposed racial ‘purity,’ anti-Black racism is even stronger than anti-white racism.”[21] As a relatively low-ranking officer, King likely also had little intelligence value to the North.[22]

Unfortunately for King, the U.S. military has likely placed a similarly low value on his potential to provide intelligence upon his return.[23] Sweden approached the U.S. with the news that the North intended to release King, and then served as the “primary interlocutor” between the U.S. and the DPRK as the two countries do not maintain diplomatic relations.[24] This is because Sweden’s embassy in Pyongyang serves as a “protecting power” for the U.S. per the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations.[25] King was returned to U.S. custody by way of China on September 28th,[26] with the KCNA releasing a statement on the 27th that the ”relevant organ of the DPRK decided to expel [King].”[27] Ultimately, on October 19th, King was charged with eight counts under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.[28] In addition to the desertion charge for running across the DMZ, King has also been charged with attempted escape from U.S. military custody in October 2022, insubordination for leaving the base after curfew, and solicitation of child pornography via Snapchat. [29]

Aside from the significant personal legal consequences for King, this saga will likely be most impactful as a signifier of an otherwise reclusive nation’s foreign policy priorities. Although observers were initially hopeful that the decision to release King “without concessions” could signal a willingness to return to diplomatic discussions over stalled nuclear talks,[30] or that the statements from the KCNA were an attempt by the North Korean regime to rebut accusations regarding their own human rights record,[31] many observers have made more pessimistic predictions in light of other events. The lack of attempts to tie King’s release to broader strategic or diplomatic concerns increasingly appears to be a signal of disinterest in engaging with the West, as the DRPK instead strengthens ties with Russia and China, and as Kim Jong-Un called for the country to take a larger role in a confronting the US in a “new Cold War.”[32] On September 13th, prior to the release of King, Kim Jong-Un traveled via armored train to the Vostochny Cosmodrome to meet with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.[33] Although past meetings between the two have predominantly been for show, Kim now has a significant stock of Russian-made munitions that Russia is interested in deploying to continue waging war in Ukraine.[34] Both the White House and the British Defense Ministry have confirmed that 1,000 containers of munitions and military equipment from North Korea have arrived in Russian military depots used to supply troops in Ukraine.[35] It is unclear what North Korea received in return,[36] but it is certainly clear that the saga surrounding King’s dash into the DPRK is only a small part of this reclusive nation’s attempts to reassert itself in global power politics.


[1] David Vergun, America Marks 70th Anniversary of End of Korean War, DOD News (July 24, 2023), https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3418679/america-marks-70th-anniversary-of-end-of-korean-war/.

[2] UN Secretary General, Message on the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Agreement (July 27, 2023), https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2023-07-27/secretary-generals-message-the-70th-anniversary-of-the-korean-war-armistice-agreement.

[3] Kim Tong-Hyung, Rival Koreas Mark Armistice Anniversary in Two Different Ways that Highlight Rising Tensions, AP News (July 26, 2023), https://apnews.com/article/korea-war-armistice-anniversary-nuclear-6469f9afe088cbd86a1ab6b9c8011ef3.

[4] Id.

[5] Korean War Armistice Agreement, July 27, 1953, 11 U.S.T. 2782.

[6] Caitlin O’Kane, What is the DMZ? Map and Pictures Show the Demilitarized Zone Travis King Crossed into North Korea, CBS News (July 19, 2023), https://www.cbsnews.com/philadelphia/news/what-is-the-dmz-demilitarized-zone-north-south-korea-border/?intcid=CNM-00-10abd1h.

[7] Foster Klug, The Surreal Korean border Village Where a US Soldier Crossed into the North, AP News (July 19, 2023), https://apnews.com/article/north-korea-us-soldier-travis-king-dmz-panmunjom-7eb66dceeb1b9f10a50f76feadef69be.

[8] U.S. News & World Reps., Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), #10 in Best Things to Do in Seoul, https://travel.usnews.com/Seoul_South_Korea/Things_To_Do/Demilitarized_Zone_DMZ_62826/ (last visited Nov. 3, 2023.

[9] Klug, supra note 7.

[10] Song Sang-Ho, Travis King in U.S. Custody After Expulsion by N. Korea: Washington Officials, Yonhap News Agency (Sept. 28, 2023), https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20230927009457315?section=search.

[11] Phil Stewart, Exclusive: US Army Charges Private Travis King with Desertion Over Dash into North Korea, Reuters (Oct. 20, 2023), https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-army-charges-private-travis-king-with-desertion-over-dash-into-north-korea-2023-10-20/.

[12] Tucker Reals, Haley Ott & Sarah Lynch Baldwin, Travis King’s Family Opens Up About U.S. Soldier in North Korean Custody After “Willfully” Crossing DMZ, CBS News (July 19, 2023), https://www.cbsnews.com/sanfrancisco/news/travis-king-who-is-us-soldier-crossed-north-korea-south-korea-dmz/?intcid=CNM-00-10abd1h. See also Michael Lee, North Confirms It Has U.S. Soldier, Claims He Defected Due to Racism, Korea JoongAng Daily (Aug. 16, 2023), https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/2023-08-16/national/northKorea/North-confirms-it-has-US-soldier-claims-he-defected-due-to-racism/1848112?detailWord=.

[13] Lee, supra note 12.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Report, Korean Central News Agency, Interim Findings of Investigation into American Solider (Aug. 17, 2023) (accessed via KCNA Watch, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1692274148-280793954/kcna-report-on-interim-findings-of-investigation-into-american-solider/).

[17] Kim Tong-Hyung, Analysis: By North Korean Standards, Travis King’s Release From Detention Was Quick, ABC News (Sept. 28, 2023), https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/analysis-north-korean-standards-pvt-travis-kings-release-103554065.

[18] See generally Paul Fischer, A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, his Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power (2015).

[19] Choe Sang-Hun, North Korea Likely Expelled U.S. Soldier Over His ‘Low Value,’ Analysts Say, N.Y. Times, Sept. 29, 2023, at A9.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. (paraphrasing Kim Dong-Shik’s remarks). See also Lee, supra note 12 (quoting DPRK state media comments about former President Obama).

[22] Choe, supra note 19; Kim, supra note 17.

[23] Haley Britzky, Potential Punishment for Travis King Unclear After Return from North Korea, CNN (Oct. 4, 2023), https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/04/politics/travis-king-north-korea-army-decision/index.html (contrasting King’s relatively brief time in the DPRK to Bowe Bergdahl’s five-year imprisonment by the Taliban in Afghanistan).

[24] Song, supra note 10.

[25] Statement, Government Offices of Sweden, Statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström (Sept. 27, 2023) (accessed via https://government.se/statements/2023/09/statement-by-minister-for-foreign-affairs-tobias-billstrom/). See also Vienna Convention on Consular Relations art. 8, Apr. 24, 1963, 596 U.N.T.S. 261 (“Upon appropriate notification to the receiving State, a consular post of the sending State may, unless the receiving State objects, exercise consular functions in the receiving State on behalf of a third State”); Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations art. 45, Apr. 18, 1961, 500 U.N.T.S. 95 (“If diplomatic relations are broken off between two States, or if a mission is permanently or temporarily recalled: (a) the receiving State must, even in case of armed conflict, respect and protect the premises of the mission, together with its property and archives; (b) the sending State may entrust the custody of the premises of the mission, together with its property and archives, to a third State acceptable to the receiving State; (c) the sending State may entrust the protection of its interests and those of its nationals to a third State acceptable to the receiving State”).

[26] Song, supra note 10.

[27] Report, Korean Central News Agency, Final Findings of Investigation into American Solider (Sept. 27, 2023) (accessed via KCNA Watch, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1695882681-110287285/kcna-report-on-final-findings-of-investigation-into-american-solider/).

[28] Stewart, supra note 11.

[29] Id.

[30] Song, supra note 10.

[31] Kim, supra note 17.

[32] Id.; see also Report, Korean Central News Agency, Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Speech at 9th Session of 14th SPA (Sept. 28, 2023) (accessed via KCNA Watch, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1696034769-414992579/respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-makes-speech-at-9th-session-of-14th-spa/).

[33] Song Sang-Ho, N. Korea sent more than 1,000 containers of military equipment, munitions to Russia: White House, Yonhap News Agency (Oct. 14, 2023), https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20231014000455315.

[34] Paul Sonne & Valeriya Safronova, Kim Has Something Putin Urgently Needs, And That’s a New Twist, N.Y. Times, (Sept. 12, 2023),.

[35] Lee Minji, Arrival of N. Korean Arms in Russia ‘Almost Certain’: British defense Ministry, Yonhap News Agency (Oct. 27, 2023), https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20231027003100315. See also Song, supra note 33.

[36] Lee, supra note 35.