Understanding why an American would defect to North Korea

Jul 20, 2023, 9:30 PM

Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarize...

Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, Wednesday, July 19, 2023. An American soldier who had served nearly two months in a South Korean prison, fled across the heavily armed border into North Korea, U.S. officials said Tuesday, becoming the first American detained in the North in nearly five years. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this week, a U.S. solider serving in South Korea crossed over the border and was detained in North Korea. It’s too early to know if the solider has decided to defect to the country.

U.S. Army Private 2nd Class Travis King was in the process of being sent back to the United State for an alleged assault.

Erik Scott, an associate professor of History at the University of Kansas, joined KSL NewsRadio to discuss the idea of defection.


In his study of defection, Scott has written a book about the topic, which took him 10 years to write. His research took him to five different countries, and he used 20 different archives to piece together the stories of those who have defected. 

“Was really surprised that many of them,” Scott said. “Rather than simply making clear cut political choices, had very mixed motivations as seems to have been the case with Travis King.”

A variety of ways to defect

Scott says those who have defected from countries such as the former Soviet Union have done so in any way possible. He says some defected as soldiers, others jumped off ships and some have even hijacked airplanes. 

“So, it was really a matter of opportunism,” he said. “As to where they could do it.”

Scott says each defector has their own reason for their actions. 

“There are many different motivations and what was striking is that it was both the U.S. side. But also the Soviet side that tried to piece together why they did what they did,” he said. “And so, one of the first things that would happen with the defection is that they would be interrogated by the side they fled to. But also, the other side would try to piece together their past history to understand why they did what they did.”

North Korea and Travis King

Scott says the majority of defections are from North Korea to South Korea. However, he says there are a few that defect in the opposite direction.

“North Korea is in many ways a holdover of the Cold War with its closed borders,” Scott said. “So, it really doesn’t allow people out.”

Scott says those who defect are putting themselves in a dangerous situation.

“It’s a very risky game that they’re playing,” he said. “And it’s much more complicated for someone like Travis King than it is for athletes crossing into the US, who really have a career waiting for them in many cases.”

If King announces he is defecting, he may have a difficult time getting out of the country, Scott says.

“And you have to wonder what the North Koreans are making of this,” he said. “I think it’s likely that they are as surprised and confused as we are.”

What could happen to King?

“I mean, there are several options,” Scott said.

He says King could be used for propaganda purposes. Scott also says the army solider could be used as a bargaining chip. The tension between United States and North Korea continues to grow.

Scott says King could thought of as a spy by North Korea. 

Either way, Scott says it’s likely King didn’t think of the ramifications of his actions.

“I think it’s very likely that he did not think through all the consequences of this,” he said.

Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson can be heard on weekdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

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Understanding why an American would defect to North Korea