Perhaps he was not so useful after all. North Korea’s decision Wednesday to expel Private Travis King, just over two months after the US soldier bolted across the inter-Korean border, quashed speculation that he would be held captive for years. A month after admitting that King had been detained, Pyongyang decided to “expel” the man who “illegally intruded” into the country. Once again, he remains in custody, but this time in the hands of the United States, as they decide his fate following not only the border-crossing, but also charges of assault and destruction of public property while stationed in Seoul.
True to form, North Korean state media revealed little about why the government decided to free the US soldier. Instead, the editorial repeated how King had confessed to entering the country unlawfully, in seeking to flee “inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army” and disillusionment with “the unequal US society.” These reasons fit perfectly within North Korea’s narrative of deriding the United States as the source of all evil; an inherently “hostile” power against which the only solution is to possess missile and nuclear technology. As such, why release him now, instead of using him as a pawn in Pyongyang’s chess match with Washington?
It would be foolish to mistake King’s release for any improvement in North Korea’s relations with the United States. You need only read the anti-western slander emanating from Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, to learn that the regime currently has little intention of talking with Washington. Cases of past Americans detained by the isolated state can shed some insight. Five years ago, North Korea also released a US citizen, Bruce Byron Lowrance, after only a month of detention. Yet, this moment came only months after the now infamous and historic Singapore Summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Those were the days when North Korea avoided souring relations with its adversary; the days when the then-US President even used North Korea’s own language to refer to the joint military exercises between the US and South Korea as “war games.” Those were also the days when Trump agreed to halt the imposition of further sanctions on the DPRK out of “respect.” At the time, Pyongyang did at least talk to Washington and Seoul — even if it quickly failed to practice what it preached.
Five years later, the geopolitics of, and involving, the Korean peninsula has changed. Earlier this week, South Korea conducted its first military parade in ten years. Its president, Yoon Suk Yeol, has made clear that any nuclear usage by its northern neighbor would lead to the “end” of the regime. Domestic changes in North Korea also cannot go unnoticed. Though COVID has been relegated to the past for most of the world, the hermit kingdom remains the virus’s last battlefield. Previous releases of US citizens have been negotiated by high-level US officials — even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — but also involved Sweden, which provides consular assistance to US citizens in the DPRK, given the lack of diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Whilst China and Sweden played a role in negotiating King’s release, North Korea is still recovering from its draconian COVID-induced border closure in January 2020. Though the Chinese and Russian embassies in Pyongyang have reopened, other consular offices, including that of Sweden, remain closed.
Travis King is now no longer North Korea’s problem
North Korea got nothing in return for King’s release, but it now has one fewer foreign policy headache. Pyongyang has enough on its plate (albeit not food). While the regime can still exploit King’s alleged dislike of the United States for its own propagandistic purposes, the North wants to make clear to the West that it has bigger fish to fry. Such arrogance has been central to its foreign policy since the state’s inception in 1948. North Korea wants its adversaries to kowtow to its demands when negotiations do occur, but will not be forced to the negotiating table if it knows that any talks will fail to satisfy its own interests.
The recent meeting between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin marked the North Korean leader’s longest-ever overseas trip, lasting nine days. Kim’s assertion that Russia was now North Korea’s “number one priority” might have been lost in translation, and much to the chagrin of its primary financial sponsor, China. What is more, only time will tell as to when Putin will fulfill his acceptance of Kim III’s invitation to Pyongyang and, crucially, whether a sanctions-violating arms deal with Moscow was actually signed. Nonetheless, the pleasure at which the North Korean leader admired Russian fighter jets and advanced satellite technology was testament to the fact that he has indeed found a fish to fry. With a mystery Russian aircraft landing in Pyongyang only two days ago, we should not dismiss the possibility that a cash-for-ammunition network emerges, and, with time, expands to include other rogue states. Travis King is now no longer North Korea’s problem, but the hermit kingdom will not reach out to its western nemesis anytime soon.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.