Travis King, soldier who crossed into North Korea, back in US custody

Washington thanks Sweden for diplomatic role and China for assistance in facilitating transit of US soldier.

US soldier Travis King crossed from South Korea into North Korea in July while on a tour of a border village [File: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo]

A United States soldier who was detained after crossing into North Korea two months ago is back in American custody, US officials have said, after Pyongyang said Travis King would be deported.

In a statement on Wednesday confirming earlier news reports, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said US officials had “secured the return” of the American soldier.

“We appreciate the dedication of the interagency team that has worked tirelessly out of concern for Private King’s wellbeing,” Sullivan said.

“In addition, we thank the government of Sweden for its diplomatic role serving as the protecting power for the United States in [North Korea] and the government of the People’s Republic of China for its assistance in facilitating the transit of Private King.”

The Associated Press news agency first reported on Wednesday morning that King was in US custody, hours after North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said authorities had finished questioning him.

An unnamed US official told AP that King was transferred to US custody in China.

KCNA’s earlier report said that King had confessed to illegally entering the North because he harboured “ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” within the US Army.

After completing its investigation, the “relevant organ of the DPRK decided to expel Travis King, a soldier of the US Army who illegally intruded into the territory of the DPRK”, the news agency reported, using the formal name for North Korea.

South Korean soldiers stand guard during a media tour at the Joint Security Area (JSA) on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea
South Korean soldiers stand guard at the Joint Security Area (JSA) on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the border village of Panmunjom in South Korea [Jeon Heon-Kyun/Pool via Reuters]

King bolted into North Korea in July while on a tour of the southern side of an inter-Korean truce village. He was serving nearly two months in a South Korean prison for assault.

King was released on July 10 and was being sent home to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he could have faced additional military discipline and discharge from the service.

He was escorted as far as customs but left the airport before boarding his plane.

It was unclear how he spent the hours until joining the tour in the border village of Panmunjom during which he ran across the border.

On Wednesday, Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for 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.”

Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from the White House on Wednesday morning, said King’s release came as the result of “months-long work” by the United Nations and Sweden.

“Sweden in particular took a major role in helping with these negotiations because of course, the United States does not have any formal relations with North Korea,” Halkett said.

“What the primary goal of the United States military right now is making sure that he is in good health, and also that he gets the support he needs.”

It remains unclear when King will be transferred back to his home country.

The border between the two Koreas is heavily fortified but at the Joint Security Area, the frontier is marked only by a low concrete divider and is relatively easy to cross, despite the presence of soldiers on both sides.

King’s border crossing came as relations between South and North Korea were at one of their lowest points, with diplomacy stalled and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un calling for increased weapons development, including tactical nuclear warheads.

Seoul and Washington have ramped up defence cooperation in response, staging joint military exercises with advanced stealth jets and US strategic assets.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies