President Joe Biden’s administration has said it will do “everything possible” to bring home young Private 2nd Class Travis King, who crossed into North Korea earlier this week “deliberately and without authorization.”
John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the White House National Security Council, said Thursday in an interview with the voice of america that US officials have not had an opportunity to communicate with the 23-year-old soldier, who crossed the demilitarized zone into North Korea.
Kirby also expressed concern about political infighting in Congress that delayed passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, as well as Moscow’s withdrawal from the deal that allowed shipments of grain left the Black Sea ports and by the continued lack of direct communication between the US and Chinese militaries.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. The VOA in Spanish summarizes some extracts from the full content of the original publication in our service in English.
VOA. Thanks for joining us this morning. Let’s start with the saga of Private Travis King. Do we have any updates on his condition, his motivations, his whereabouts? Is the administration committed to bringing him home even if it is against his wishes?
Kirby: We have no news on Private King. We are continuing to carry out appropriate outreach activities on the North Korean side to try to gain information and knowledge about his whereabouts and his well-being, but we just don’t know. We are absolutely committed to working for him to return to his family; We don’t know his motivation. We haven’t had a chance to speak to him, so we don’t know exactly what he’s thinking right now. But he’s an American soldier and we’re going to do everything we can to try to find out where he is, how he’s doing and work to get him home.
VOA. Let’s move on to Russia and the grain deal. Is the administration looking for alternative solutions to get these essential supplies out of the port? Things like NATO escorts or reflagging ships? How seriously does the administration take the Russian defense ministry’s threat that it will treat all ships in that port as carrying military equipment?
Kirby: We have to take this ridiculous threat seriously. We are working and will work with Ukraine and our allies and partners to try to find other ways to get grain out of Ukraine. You will most likely have to go through land routes. We have done this before, when the grain deal was in effect. It’s not that efficient; you can’t get as much grain out that way. We understand that, but we’re going to keep trying.
What needs to happen here is apart from Russia ending their blockade and make no mistake what they are threatening to do is a military blockade which is a military act so in addition to not doing it they need to get back to the deal. The deal was good for everyone, including Russian farmers. But it was really good for developing nations who have food shortage issues that will only be exacerbated by this across the global South, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
VOA: Let’s move on to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wagner’s mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. First, the Kremlin has said that Putin will not go to South Africa, allowing it to avoid arrest. Does the US still encourage signatories to the International Criminal Court to arrest him if given the chance? And does this change or improve the relationship between Washington and Pretoria now that this awkward situation between them no longer exists?
Kirby: I will let the South African leaders speak for themselves. We believe it is important to hold all those responsible for atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine to account, and that includes Russian leaders who are responsible for the efforts of their troops on the ground in Ukraine.
VOA: We have seen Prigozhin resurface and say, supposedly, that Wagner’s troops are not willing to fight in the Ukraine. What do you think of this? What are the implications?
Kirby: It’s too hard to know at this point exactly how seriously we should take this or what the impacts will be on the battlefield. I’ll tell you, we haven’t seen Wagner’s forces fight in the Ukraine since Mr. Prigozhin tried to overthrow the Defense Ministry. It’s not clear exactly how many there are in Ukraine, but we haven’t seen them contribute much to the fighting in Ukraine. So it’s too early to tell.
VOA: Turning to the Aspen Security Forum: China continues to come up as the big concern. US Adm. John C. Aquilino said they are still trying to reopen army-to-army communication with China. Can you update us on that effort and why it’s so important?
Kirby: Communications between the military remain closed, which is unfortunate, especially when tensions are so high. You want to be able to pick up the phone and talk to your opposite and try to reduce tensions and avoid miscalculations when you have that military team sailing so close to each other, flying together. The potential for miscalculation and risk only skyrockets if they can’t talk to each other.