The US soldier, who deserted in North Korea in July, sought to escape “mistreatment and racial discrimination in the US military”, North Korean state news agency KCNA reported today, providing the first official confirmation that Travis King is being held by Pyongyang.

“According to an investigation by a competent agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Travis King admitted that he illegally entered the territory of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” KCNA reported.

This is Pyongyang’s first public statement on the matter since the beginning of the King case. This American soldier was due to return to the United States after trouble with South Korean justice, but on July 18 he crossed the border into North Korea after mixing with a group of tourists visiting the demilitarized zone that separates the two Korean states.

“During the investigation, Travis King admitted that he decided to come to the DPRK because of his disgust at the inhumane treatment and racial discrimination in the US military,” KCNA reported.

It remains under control

Travis King “remains under the control of Korean People’s Army soldiers since entered on purpose” in a North Korean zone, the agency added, confirming for the first time that the soldier is in custody.

King “expressed his intention to seek asylum in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or a third country, saying he is disappointed by the inequality in American society,” KCNA also assured, clarifying that the regime’s investigation is ongoing.

North Korean officials often invoke racism and other social problems in the US to respond to US criticism. Tomorrow, Thursday, the UN Security Council will meet to discuss human rights in North Korea.

Private Travis King had just been released from prison in South Korea after a bar fight and scuffle with police. He was to return to the US to face disciplinary action.

This month, King’s uncle, Myron Gates, told ABC News that his nephew, who is black, faced racism during his military deployment and how, after being incarcerated in a South Korean prisonit didn’t sound like the same person.

On Thursday, August 3, the US administration said Pyongyang was “responding” to requests regarding the soldier.

The United Nations Command, which oversees the truce that ended the Korean War fighting, said last month it had begun talks with North Korea about Travis King.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who had also confirmed there had been contact with Pyongyang, said he had no information on the soldier’s whereabouts or his health.

The Pentagon said it could not confirm King’s comments, as reported by KCNA, and was focusing on his safe return.

North Korea’s first official comment about Soldier King is pure propaganda, Sue Kim, a former CIA analyst and now a political practice expert at LMI Consulting, told AFP.

“The fact that King crossed over to North Korea offered the Kim regime a multifaceted opportunity, first of all the eventual negotiation with the United States for King’s release,” he said, emphasizing that the North Koreans are “tough negotiators.”

Opportunity for propaganda

“It is also an opportunity for the regime to make propaganda, spin the situation in a way to criticize the United States and express Pyongyang’s deep hostility towards Washington,” he added.

Shortly before airing his comments about Travis King, KCNA had broadcast a statement criticizing tomorrow’s UN debate on the rights situation in North Korea while calling America an “anti-people evil empire, completely corrupted by all kinds of social evils’ and accused of ‘encouraging racial discrimination, as well as gun crime, child abuse and forced labour’, while ‘imposing on other countries unethical standards of human rights and fosters tumult and inner confusion’.

According to Vladimir Tikhonov, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, since Travis King “is black, I imagine that for the North Koreans he acquires some value in terms of propaganda.”