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Where U.S. relations with North and South Korea stand after an American crossed over


One of the perennial challenges for American administrations is North Korea - missile tests, a nuclear weapons program, a succession of Americans in custody, often followed by high-profile delegations to secure their release. And, of course, there's another seat at the table occupied by ally South Korea, host to tens of thousands of American troops, one of them being Army Private Travis King, who crossed into North Korea last week. For a look at where relations with Pyongyang and Seoul stand now and how the King situation may complicate things, we turn to Georgetown University's Victor Cha, who served as director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council under George W. Bush. Welcome to the program.

VICTOR CHA: Thank you, Ayesha. Good to be with you.

RASCOE: North Korea has not yet acknowledged publicly that Private King is in the country. What do you make of that?

CHA: That, to me, is not actually surprising. I'm sure they're going through their own internal procedures of when a case like this arises of interrogating the individual, probably at the immediate area, in the joint security area, and then probably taking him for further interrogation somewhere else in the country. And so I imagine that's going to take some time. These - unfortunately, these cases don't resolve quickly. So I'm not surprised that we have not heard from them yet. I think eventually we will, but it may be some time.

RASCOE: This happens as you have North Korea testing intercontinental ballistic missiles. And this is after a long time of the U.S. trying to negotiate or not trying to negotiate or all of these things and - which culminated during the Trump administration with Trump meeting Kim Jong Un three times. I was there on the second time. But these meetings, which were unprecedented - they didn't go anywhere. They ended up right back with the testing. So why do you think that happened?

CHA: Well, I think you're right. Not only did they not result in any successful denuclearization of North Korea. I think they're part of the reason why the North Koreans have not responded to any overtures by the Biden administration because of the failed summit meetings. I mean, you know, North Korea is an authoritarian dictatorship, and they put their leader out there for the summit meetings with the U.S. president that achieved nothing for them. So I'm sure they feel very burned by that. And the legacy of these Trump summits is that the North Koreans now are not willing to talk about anything.

RASCOE: Private King was imprisoned in South Korea for assault. And are these sorts of altercations by service members common?

CHA: So they do happen. There's something called a status of forces agreement that the U.S. military has with host nations, and these agreements have been revised to acknowledge that this sort of bad behavior has happened and that there is a need for these people, particularly if they act against host nation citizens, to be tried under the law of the host nation and in the host nation courts. And that's exactly what happened to Private King. And that's why he was in South Korean detention before he was - eventually finished serving his sentence and was released to return to the United States to face further adjudication in the United States.

RASCOE: The U.S. has about 25,000 troops stationed in South Korea, the third-largest overseas contingent, and they've been there for more than 70 years. What does the average South Korean think about that?

CHA: I think in general, South Koreans understand that the U.S. presence, the U.S. alliance, the U.S. security commitment has been part of what has enabled South Korea to be incredibly successful, both as a democracy and as a - and a booming economy. That security guarantee is important. South Korea lives in a neighborhood where - I mean, you could call it a pretty tough neighborhood. They have Russia right there. They have China right there. And they have North Korea.

The U.S. military does have a plan now to move the majority of its forces and installations that sit in the center of the city of Seoul to a large base called Pyeongtaek, which is further south of Seoul, which will move the U.S. military presence out of the center of the city, which I think is a good thing for civil military relations and the longevity of the alliance. Polling in South Korea generally is quite positive on the relationship with the United States and the alliance with the United States. So I think they understand sort of the stakes here and the benefits that the alliance provides.

RASCOE: What do you expect to happen to Travis King? Do you think North Korea will fly him back to the U.S., or is he going to become a pawn or a bargaining chip in a propaganda war?

CHA: Yeah, I mean, I'm quite concerned about what the road ahead looks like. Even if they put Travis King out now in a video saying he wants to defect to North Korea for propaganda purposes, we will not know whether that is a coerced statement or whether that is really the intention of King. Eventually, the North Koreans will respond to U.S. inquiries, will charge him with some sort of alleged espionage or some sort of trumped-up charges. And then the question will be, what does the Biden administration do to get him out? In the past, the United States has had to send high-level officials to go and extract these people. Former President Carter, former President Clinton have gone to North Korea to bring back detained Americans. And so that might happen, but it may be months before we get to that point.

RASCOE: That's Georgetown University professor Victor Cha. His new book, "Korea: A New History Of South And North," just came out. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHA: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.