Travis King
The photo of US soldier Travis King (4th L, black shirt) attending a tour to the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. Image courtesy of Sarah Leslie via AFP / Handout

Travis King, the US soldier who crossed into North Korea last month, wanted refuge from "inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US Army," the North Korean authorities said on Tuesday.

This is the first time that the North Korean authorities have publicly acknowledged the soldier's presence in their territory. The 23-year-old private crossed into North Korean territory from South Korea on July 18. The state media claimed that King had admitted to crossing illegally into North Korea to seek refuge.

"During the investigation, Travis King confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK as he harboured ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army," according to state-run news agency KCNA.

"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."

The report further stated that he is being "kept under control" by soldiers from the North Korean People's Army and that he is still under investigation.

Meanwhile, the US says that it cannot verify the claims made by the North Korean authorities. A Pentagon spokesperson said that the government is working to secure King's release using all available means.

Who is Travis King?

Private King is a reconnaissance specialist who joined the military in January 2021. He had served as a cavalry scout with the Korean Rotational Force.

Before he crossed into North Korea, he was being held in South Korea on assault charges and was facing disciplinary action for the same. His decision to cross into North Korea of his own free will is being seen as an attempt to escape disciplinary action.

He was an active-duty soldier when he managed to join a civilian tour of the demilitarised zone and fled across to North Korea.

The US military says that King joined an orientation tour of the Joint Security Area between North Korea and South Korea and "wilfully and without authorisation crossed the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)."

The DMZ is the world's most heavily armed border region and is located between the two Koreas, which remain technically at war with the presence of nearly two million troops.

The big picture:

The development comes when US-North Korea ties are at their worst. The US currently has no official diplomatic relations with North Korea, and the latter could use King as a bargaining chip to force the US to reduce its military activities with South Korea.

Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un issued a statement condemning the military drills, saying that the US and its allies have reached an "extreme red line." It even threatened to turn the peninsula into a "huge war arsenal and a more critical war zone."

South Korea and the United States have increased joint military exercises as North Korea continues to conduct weapon tests despite UN sanctions.

It has tested more than 100 weapons over the last year. In February, North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast as a response to the upcoming US-South Korea military drills.

It has been carrying out banned weapons tests to increase its nuclear and missile arsenals. Last year, it launched more than 70 ballistic missiles to carry out test launches of its biggest missiles, including banned nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles.

Kim has even asked his military to "gird for a war" as the US and South Korea prepare to hold military drills between August 21 and 24.

The development has not gone down too well with the North Korean leader, who has threatened to counter the US military moves with the "most overwhelming nuclear force." North Korea calls these exercises "frantic" drills "simulating an all-out war against" Pyongyang.