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Erik Scott discusses the history of U.S. service members defecting to North Korea

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

An American soldier who was serving a rotation in South Korea has crossed the border into North Korea. It's not known whether Army Private Travis King intended to defect. He was in the process of being sent back to the U.S. after being detained for assault and was escorted as far as the airport, but he never got on a plane. Then wearing civilian clothes, King joined a tour of a border town where U.S. authorities say he willingly crossed the heavily guarded military demarcation line. King is not the first American who has crossed into North Korea. For more on this, we're joined by historian Erik Scott. He's the author of the book "Defectors: How The Illicit Flight Of Soviet Citizens Built The Borders Of The Cold War World." Erik, we hear lots of stories about people from North Korea attempting to leave their country, but how often do Americans or people from somewhere else try to defect into North Korea?

ERIK SCOTT: That's exactly right. When we think of defections, we're thinking of the thousands of people who have fled from North Korea to the South. But there have been a handful of people who have fled in the opposite direction. And although this is a very small number, they become incredibly prominent in terms of the propaganda use that the North Koreans employ them for. When the armistice was signed between the North and the South, there were about 20 U.S. soldiers who chose to remain in China. And then again in the '60s, there were about seven U.S. soldiers who crossed over to the other side. The last case was in 1982. So this is the first time we have a U.S. soldier crossing over in over 40 years.

MARTÍNEZ: Why might a soldier do that?

SCOTT: Well, the complications of defectors, as I've shown in my book and as was revealed to me when I was doing my research, are really quite complicated. Although we think of defection as a political choice, as a choice from one ideology over the other, the motivations are often very mixed. In some cases, they face problems at home. In some cases, they face disciplinary issues, as seems to be the case with Travis King. In some cases, they did it on a whim. And it's - what's remarkable about it is that through this act, although it's a very dangerous one and has very serious consequences, they're catapulted from relative unknowns into international...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

SCOTT: ...Celebrities of a sort that everyone is talking about. Almost all...

MARTÍNEZ: And we should say, actually...

SCOTT: ...The U.S. soldiers that have crossed over...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. We should say that we don't know...

SCOTT: ...Have been relatively...

MARTÍNEZ: ...For a fact that King actually defected. But still, that would be quite a whim to try something like that. How does North Korea typically treat service members who cross?

SCOTT: Well, the Koreans - the North Korean have - likely have King under - in custody. They are likely interrogating him. They may be very carefully screening him to determine what they're going to do with him. They have, in the past, both imprisoned defectors, would also use them for propaganda, having them star in films, using them either as themselves in these films or as American soldiers to portray the U.S. side in an unflattering light.

MARTÍNEZ: And one thing - one more thing really quick. If the U.S. winds up getting him back, how does the U.S. typically treat defectors, if that indeed is what he did?

SCOTT: So the U.S. side treats this very seriously. And it's really interesting who gets to determine who is a defector, whether it's the state this person leaves or the state they go to or the media that frames this as a story. But if the U.S. side treats this as a defection, King will be facing charges of desertion as well as the existing charges he already had.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. That's historian Erik Scott. He's the author of the book "Defectors: How The Illicit Flight Of Soviet Citizens Built The Borders Of The Cold War World." Erik, thanks.

SCOTT: Great to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.