The US has declined to classify US Army defector Travis King as a prisoner of war since he bizarrely fled across the border into North Korea during a tour of the demilitarized zone last month, officials said.
That means King is presently not entitled to the protections provided to POWs under the post WWII Geneva Convention — which is highly sensitive for the military given its commitment to leave no troops behind enemy lines, four US officials told Reuters.
The decision on how to classify the 23-year-old Wisconsin native remains an open question among the military.
King, an active duty soldier, may appear to qualify as a POW since the US and North Korea technically remain at war — as the Korean War officially ended in an armistice in 1953 rather than a peace treaty.
A Pentagon spokesperson would not comment on King’s POW status, but told Reuters the defense department was working through all available channels to have him returned.
“Private King must be treated humanely in accordance with international law,” the spokesperson said.
US officials said Washington has relayed that message to Pyongyang through private communications, but none of the messages have invoked POW status.
No final decision has been made and the US still has the option to declare King a POW as officials learn more about the case, a US official told the outlet.
Both the US and North Korea are signatories of the Third Geneva Convention, which protects prisoners of war.
That agreement outlines standards for the treatment of captives, ensuring everything from sufficient medical care and Red Cross access.
It also ensures that prisoners have the ability to send messages to their families.
Rachel VanLandingham, a military law expert at Southwestern Law School, told Reuters that King would benefit from POW classification, although it’s legally 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.
However, Geoffrey Corn, a military law expert at Texas Tech University School of Law, said it would be hard for the US to call King a prisoner of war since there is no active fighting between the two sides.
“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.
On Thursday, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder confirmed that the Hermit Kingdom had finally acknowledged the UN Command’s request for information about King — more than two weeks after he was detained.
However, details were scant, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“We’re actually trying to learn more about his whereabouts and his well-being, and we simply don’t have that information,” Blinken told “Good Morning America” on Thursday.
“We’re trying by every means possible just to get that basic information and then to see about bringing him home.”
King, who served as a cavalry scout with the Korean Rotational Force, sprinted across the border with South Korea on July 18 while on a civilian tour of the demilitarized zone while wearing civilian clothes.
The troubled private was due to fly to Fort Bliss, Texas, to face military disciplinary action after serving several weeks in a South Korean prison on charges of assault and destroying public property. He slipped his military escort and made his escape.
King’s family said they have been left in the dark about the situation despite reaching out to the White House and elected officials.
With Post wires
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