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US declines to invoke prisoner of war status for North Korean defector Travis King

WASHINGTON — The United States has declined so far to classify Army Private Travis King as a prisoner of war, despite his being taken into North Korean custody after he crossed into the country last month, four U.S. officials told Reuters.

The decision, which could mean King is not covered by the protections entitled to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention, is highly sensitive for the U.S. military given its commitment to leave no soldier behind enemy lines.

How to classify the 23-year-old, who dashed across the heavily guarded border during a civilian tour of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, has been an open question for the military.

As an active-duty soldier he might appear to qualify as a POW, given that the United States and North Korea technically remain at war. The 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

But factors including King’s decision to cross into North Korea of his own free will, in civilian attire, appear to have disqualified him from that status, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on King’s POW status, but said the defense department’s priority was to bring him home and it was working to achieve that through all available channels.

“Private King must be treated humanely in accordance with international law,” the spokesperson said.

Washington has conveyed that message in private communications to Pyongyang, the U.S. officials said, adding that those communications have not invoked POW status.

The United States still has the option to call King a POW. A U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said there was no final decision and that the U.S. view on King’s status could evolve as it learns more about his case.

The State Department referred a request for comment to the Pentagon. White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prisoners of war are protected by the Third Geneva Convention, to which North Korea and the U.S. are signatories. That agreement details standards for the treatment of captives, ensuring everything from sufficient medical care and Red Cross access, to the ability of prisoners to send messages to their families.

Rachel VanLandingham, a military law expert at Southwestern Law School, said King would benefit from being classified as a POW, even if that could be seen legally as a stretch.

“It provides a much clearer, very structured framework for exactly how they’re to treat him down to the number of cigarettes a day they’re required to give him if he asks,” she said.

Rachel VanLandingham, a military law expert at Southwestern Law School, said King would benefit from being classified as a POW, even if that could be seen legally as a stretch.

It is not clear that labeling King a POW would change how the isolated North Korean government treats him. Pyongyang, which continues to develop nuclear weapons in violation of UN resolutions, has repeatedly shown it is not willing to be bound by international law.

In any case, said Geoffrey Corn, a military law expert at Texas Tech University School of Law, it would be difficult for the United States to assert that King is a prisoner of war – in part because there was no active fighting at the time on the peninsula.

“He wasn’t really captured in the context of hostilities. If that happened to us, we’d probably designate him as an undocumented alien who crossed the border without a visa,” Corn said.

King, who joined the U.S. Army in January 2021, had served as a Cavalry Scout with the Korean Rotational Force, part of the decades-old U.S. security commitment to South Korea.

But his posting was dogged by legal troubles.

He faced two allegations of assault in South Korea, and eventually pleaded guilty to one instance of assault and destroying public property for damaging a police car during a profanity-laced tirade against Koreans, according to court documents.

After serving time in detention in South Korea, King had been due to face military disciplinary action on his return to Fort Bliss, Texas.

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