At a a time of increased tension between the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the wider world, the headline “US Soldier Defects to North Korea” was not exactly something we expected to read today.
In actuality though, this if proven is far from the first defection to the communist block, with a vast and chequered list of individuals going back to the end of the Korean War.
So, what do we know so far, and what parallels does it have with the past?
US Soldier Defects – What we know so far?
According to NK News, (a publication I have regularly contributed to) Private 2nd Class Travis King, who was facing disciplinary measures for unknown reasons from the US military was being repatriated to the United States.
To read my work for NK News click here
Said disciplinary problems have not been dicslosed, but we know they were serious enough for him to essentially be escorted out of the country. He then “somehow” managed to leave the airport, despite having gone through security, although anyone who has ever missed a flight will be able to attest, this is quite an easy task to achieve.
He then returned to Seoul, booked a tour of the DMZ and at Panmunjom ran “laughing” over the border. Fellow tour members reported thinking it was a joke until he did not return.
Forces from the United Nations Command, which operates the Demilitarised Zone and joint security area (JSA) have stated they are in touch with the Korean Peoples Army (KPA) in order to find a “resolution”, but little else has been said.
Of course resolution is short hand for “giving him back”, but this will likely depend on why he was being flown back from Korea in the first place and what propaganda coup if any keeping him in the DPRK would bring.
This currently makes him the seventh US serviceman to “cross the line”, or defect since the Korean War, but in actuality the number of western soldiers that chose communism after the “forgotten war” is much larger.
American and British defectors in the Korean Wa
During the Korean War solders from both sides were captured and held until the end of hostilities. One of the sticking points when peace was achieved was what to do with said combatants.
North Korea and China wanted a simple exchange, whilst the western powers wanted soldiers rot be given the choice of where to go. In the end a compromise was reached whereby the men who wanted to stay in “enemy territory” would be given 90 days to decide their fate on neutral ground, before “Operation Big Switch”.
This involved 75,823 communist forces (70,183 North Koreans, 5,640 Chinese) being returned home and 12,773 U.N. soldiers (7,862 South Koreans, 3,597 Americans, and 946 British) being sent south across the armistice line and back to their homes.
It was reported that around 14,000 Chinese, mostly made of former Kuomintang soldiers refused repatriation.
But, this also cut both ways, with 24 United Nations soldiers, consisting of 23 Americans and one British national, as well as 327 South Koreans essentially opting to defect to the Communist block.
Of the 24 two, namely Corporal Claude Bachelor and Corporal Edward Dickenson, changed their minds during the 90 day “cooling off period” only to be court-martialed and end up serving four and a half and three and half years in military prison respectively.
Ironically the soldiers who decided to stay did not face prison when they returned stateside, as they had been “dishonorable discharged”.
The fate of the 22 Defectors to China
All of the defectors ended up living in the Peoples Republic of China, rather than the DPRK, with their reasoning and level of success in China all differing greatly. Many of the soldiers were African-American and were lured by the prospect of what was at least seen at the time as a more “just system”. America of course was still largely racially segregated at the time and practicing its own form of apartheid.
Over the coming years many would return home, some as early as 1955, namely the “dummy bunch”, three soldiers sent to work in a farm as they could not learn Chinese. Many though found happiness in China and stayed for over 10 years, with a large swath of departures occurring during the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
Most famous among the group though is probably James Veneris who made a success of his life in China and despite going back to the US to visit remained a devoted convert to the PRC and the communist cause. He not only learned Chinese fluently, but became somewhat of a celebrity.
What was to follow though were defectors to the DPRK
The original six defectors to North Korea
The first of the “second wave” of defections to North Korea came in 1962 when Larry Allen Abshier crossed the line to be followed by James Dresnok, Jerry Wayne Parrish and Charles Jenkins.
All of these soldiers for various reasons crossed the line at the DMZ and were initially at least treated like heroes. Their stories after this differ greatly depending on who was telling the tale.
Parish eventually left North Korea, spending 24 days in “jail” before writing a book that few people read. He spoke of the horrors of his time in the country. Dresnok on the other hand spoke glowingly of his time in the country and proudly haf three sons, and lived in Pyongyang until his death just a few years ago.
I once met his son at Kwangbok supermarket, while my former colleague Michael Spavor actually bumped into Dresnok at another Pyongyang store. Each time both sides were surprised to see “white faces” strolling around Pyongyang.
To read about North Korean celebrities click here.
The later two defections were of a slightly stranger variety though. First was Roy Chung a Korean-American who in 1979 defected via the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) only to later resurface in Pyongyang. He allegedly later died of natural causes according to Nick Bonner who produced the film “Crossing the Line”
The last such defection, at least in the cold war era was of James T White in 1982. Very little is known about him, including from the other defectors such as Dresnok, but officially at least he drowned in the Chongchon River in 1985.
You can read his bio here.
The last potential defection came in 2014 when Mathew Tod Miller ripped up his visa and allegedly at least asked for asylum. He has since stated that he wanted to see what North Korean prisons were like. Many have questioned his sanity at the time, with him eventually serving time in North Korean prison before like all others being released.
Quite ironically and since the ban on US citizens visiting North Korea the current “defector” is perhaps the first American to set foot in the country since President Trump crossed the DMZ (technically at least breaking his own law). Here of course he famously shook hands with Marshall Kim Jong Un during an era of good relations between the two countries that seems almost like an eternity ago.
To read about the Trump-Kim summit click here
The case of the redefectors
And then there is the numerous cases of the redfectors, those who left North Korea for the green pastures of the south only to become disillusioned and then try to return to the DPRK.
Of this there have been many famous cases, some successful, some not. Over the ten years from 2012-2022 the Unification Ministry of South Korea reported at least 30 cases, although many sources feel the number to at least in the hundreds.
Those who do choose to go back usually have to do it through third countries, as South Korea have made it illegal for people to return to North Korea. Perhaps most famous among these is Kim Ryon-hui, who has pleaded to be able to return home to be with her family. I was lucky enough to meet and interview her in Seoul and far from how she is portrayed, she seemed genuinely anxious and serious about simply wanting to “return home”.
Reasons given for wanting to go north vary, but racial bias towards North Koreans has been greatly reported on, as well as a feeling of isolation in comparison to the more communal environment of the DPRK.
To read about the Russian diplomats leaving Pyongyang click here.
US Solider Defects – What will his fate be?
According to Chad O’Carrol of NK News “If he’s just a wanted American prisoner he will be repatriated quickly” and that North Korea are “Too proud to take Americans long term”.
Valid points and potentially particularly apt with regards to what happened with the last US citizen that was in the custody of the DPRK, but things are of course different here. This is not a US transgressor, but one who has crossed the line voluntarily.
North Korea officially at least offers asylum as part of its constitution, something I am regularly reminded of from the numerous crank e-mails I get from mostly Americans that want to relocate/defect to the DPRK. Obviously they do not offer this willy-nilly though as the Mathew Miller case demonstrates.
These are though strange times, particularly as we are for all intents in Cold War 2.0. Of the seven previous defectors, six crossed at Panmunjom and all were allowed to stay living in the DPRK. Not allowing Private 2nd Class Travis King to do the same would not only be breaking precedent, but could also been seen as a sign of weakness.
We are also in a time of war, with the DPRK on the side of Russia. With this in mind the political value of a defection right now should not be underestimated. For now though, no one knows and we can but speculate on the fate of Private 2nd Class Travis King.