US took custody of Travis King following ‘intense diplomacy’ with North Korea, officials say

Private Travis King, the US Army soldier who fled to North Korea rather than board a US-bound plane for discipline by authorities at home, is back in American custody nearly two months after he broke away from a tour group in the demilitarised zone that separates North and South Korea and crossed the border into the North.

US officials on Wednesday said the errant American soldier had been turned over to American authorities in China, and has now been transported to a US military installation.

In a statement, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan praised what he described as “the dedication of the interagency team that has worked tirelessly out of concern for Private King’s wellbeing”.

A senior US official who briefed reporters on the developments said the US government had “successfully facilitated” his departure from North Korea following what the official described as “a months-long effort involving multiple US government agencies” which had been “undertaken out of concern for Private King’s well-being and a desire to reunite him with his family”.

The official added that the US had been “reaching out” to Pyongyang “through multiple channels” over the last two months — including through the United Nations and the United Nations Command which oversees the allied military presence in South Korea — to gain information on Pvt King’s welfare and to “secure his safe return home”.

Because the US and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations, US officials have also been in touch with the DPRK through the government of Sweden, which represents US interests in the North.

“I’m pleased to share this morning that Private King appears to be in good health and good spirits as he makes his way home. We are grateful to the Swedish government for its diplomatic role in serving as the protecting power for the United States in the DPRK and to the government of the People’s Republic of China for its assistance in facilitating the safe transit of Private King,” the official said.

Mr Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, also thanked both the Swedish and Chinese governments for their respective roles.

A State Department official told reporters that Swedish officials had indicated that North Korea was interested in releasing the US soldier earlier this month. He also said Mr King’s release was the result of “intense diplomacy” through “every available diplomatic channel,” and told reporters that Mr King’s family has been in contact with the government throughout the process.

Separately, a different administration official said Sweden’s role in Mr King’s release had been “really vital”. They also said he was “very happy to be on his way home” and “very much looking forward to being reunited with his family”.

The news of Mr King’s return to American custody comes just hours after North Korea announced that it would expel Mr King, who crossed into the country while taking part in a guided tour of a border village in a demilitarised zone.

State news agency KCNA reported on Wednesday that Mr King, 23, had confessed to illegally entering the country back in July.

Pyongyang reportedly deported him after concluding its investigation into his “illegal” entry into the country, the report said.

North Korea claims that its investigation into Mr King’s crossing had revealed that he was seeking refuge in the country “due to inhuman treatment in the US military, antipathy to racism and disillusionment with the unequal US society”.

Prior to fleeing across the border, Mr King had been detained for more than 40 days in a South Korean penal facility after he was convicted on assault and destruction of private property charges.

He was sentenced on 24 May to serve in a labour camp at the Cheonan correctional facility, which is intended to house US military members and other foreigners convicted of crimes in South Korea.

On his release on 10 July, he was scheduled to return home to the US to face disciplinary action at his home base at Fort Bliss in Texas, the SCMP previously reported. But he skipped his flight and crossed into North Korea.

A Defence Department official said the military’s focus at this time is “caring for Private King and his family,” and stressed that upon arrival in the US, he will be “evaluated by some very talented, experienced and experienced team” who will “guide him through a reintegration process that will address any medical and emotional concerns and ensure we get him in a good place to reunite with his family”.

The official said questions of the soldier’s disciplinary status and any possible court-martial would be resolved “following completion of his reintegration”.

Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for Pvt King’s mother, Claudine Gates, said Ms Gates “will be forever grateful to the United States Army and all its interagency partners for a job well done”.

He added that the soldier’s family was asking for privacy, and said Ms Gates “does not intend to give any interviews”.

US Army soldier Travis King (VIA REUTERS)
US Army soldier Travis King (VIA REUTERS)

The Pentagon confirmed in July that US forces in Korea and Army counter-intelligence were conducting an investigation into Mr King’s disappearance over the border.

The United Nations Command asked North Korea for information, which finally released information about his crossing in August.

“During the investigation, Travis King confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK as he harboured ill feelings against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army,” state-run news agency KCNA said last month.

It added that Mr King was “kept under control by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army” and they were still probing the circumstances surrounding his crossing into the country.

While Mr King’s uncle Myron Gates told ABC News last month that his nephew had been experiencing racism during his military deployment, and after he spent time in a South Korean jail, he no longer sounded like himself.

The private was a reconnaissance specialist who had served in the army since January 2021 and was in South Korea as part of his rotation.

Throughout the years, other US Army soldiers have also defected to North Korea, with some cases dating back to the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.

With additional reporting by agencies