28th September 2023 – (Seoul) Private Travis King, the U.S. soldier who ran into North Korea in July, is now in U.S. custody after being expelled by North Korea into China, according to U.S. officials on Wednesday.
While specific details regarding King’s transfer remain limited, the resolution of his case is notable due to the rarity of diplomatic cooperation between the United States, North Korea, and China.
King, 23, made a sudden dash into North Korea from South Korea on July 18 while on a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area, located on the heavily fortified border between the two neighbours. He was immediately apprehended by North Korean authorities.
His case sparked intense discussions within the U.S. government, but Washington refrained from declaring him a prisoner of war. Instead, North Korea appears to have treated his case as one of illegal immigration.
North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, reported that King had been expelled after admitting to entering North Korea illegally due to disillusionment with what he perceived as unequal treatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. army and society.
The KCNA statement provided the final results of an investigation into King’s border crossing, revealing that he confessed to illegally entering North Korea due to his negative experiences and disillusionment. The authorities in North Korea decided to expel him under the country’s law, but the details of his expulsion—such as how, when, and to where—were not specified in the report.
U.S. officials confirmed to Reuters that King is already in U.S. custody after being expelled by North Korea into China. However, they did not provide further details pending an official announcement from the United States.
As of now, the U.S. State Department, U.S. Forces Korea, and the United Nations Command have not responded to requests for comment on the matter.
While there have been previous cases of U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea attempting to desert or defect to North Korea, the decision to expel King came relatively swiftly. Others have spent years in the reclusive country before their release.
Jonathan Franks, spokesperson for King’s mother, Claudine Gates, expressed gratitude to the United States Army and its interagency partners for their handling of the situation.
King’s uncle, Myron Gates, previously stated in an interview with ABC News in August that his nephew, who is Black, had encountered racism during his military deployment. He added that after spending time in a South Korean jail, King did not sound like himself.
Private Travis King enlisted in the U.S. army in January 2021 and faced two allegations of assault during his time in South Korea. Court documents reveal that he pleaded guilty to one instance of assault and damaging public property, specifically a police car, during a profanity-laced outburst against Koreans. Further disciplinary measures were awaiting him upon his return to the United States.
After completing his military detention, King was being transported by the U.S. military to the airport for his return to his home unit in the United States. However, he deviated from the plan and joined a tour of the border area, where he ran across the border despite attempts by South Korean and U.S. guards to stop him.
Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, suggested that Pyongyang might have determined that any diplomatic and propaganda value in keeping King was outweighed by the likely pressure it would face from the United States.
“It seems likely that North Korea saw little value in him as a countermeasure to a U.S. human rights campaign against themselves by highlighting racial issues in America,” he commented.
The successful resolution of Private Travis King’s case brings an end to a complex and highly unusual situation involving multiple countries. The return of King to U.S. custody ensures that he will face appropriate legal procedures and disciplinary measures for his actions.