US soldier Travis King’s release from North Korea: What you need to know

Washington says return of US army Private Travis King does not signal diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang.

Travis King's photo on screen
A TV screen shows an image of American soldier Travis King during a news programme at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, August 16, 2023 [Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – After more than two months in North Korean custody, American soldier Travis King is returning to the United States, ending a saga that risked further inflaming tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.

US officials on Wednesday thanked Sweden and China for facilitating King’s release, but stressed that the move does not represent a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.

King spent weeks in jail in South Korea for assault earlier this year before he crossed the border into North Korea in July.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is King?

King, a 23-year-old army private from southeast Wisconsin, joined the US military in 2021.

Speaking to US media outlets, family members previously described him as nice and quiet.

But relatives told The Associated Press earlier this year that his mental health took a turn after the death of his seven-year-old cousin in February.

How did he get to North Korea?

King was supposed to fly home from Seoul to Texas after his release from prison in July.

But he left the airport and, days later, he joined a civilian tourist group in the South Korean border village of Panmunjom. On July 18, he ran into North Korea across the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two countries.

Why did North Korea release him?

North Korea said through its official KCNA news agency on Wednesday that it “decided to expel” King, who is Black, after concluding an investigation over his entry into the country.

“King confessed that he illegally intruded into the territory of [North Korea] as he harboured ill feelings against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army and was disillusioned about the unequal US society,” the KCNA report said.

What did North Korea get for releasing King?

Nothing, according to US officials. “We made no concessions as part of securing his return,” US Department of State Matthew Miller told reporters on Wednesday.

How was he released?

Miller said King was transported across the border from North Korea to the Chinese city of Dandon, where he was met by US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns.

From there, he boarded a State Department plane to Shenyang, China and was subsequently transferred to a US air base south of Seoul.

By Wednesday afternoon, he was en route to the US.

Will King face charges in the US?

That is unclear. The Pentagon could take disciplinary action and/or pursue criminal charges against King. So far, it has not made any announcements to that effect.

Will his release spur Washington-Pyongyang diplomacy?

Not necessarily. Miller said Washington favours diplomacy with Pyongyang, but King’s release does not signal a rapprochement.

There has been a recent spike in tensions amid increased military drills between the US, South Korea and Japan, as well as North Korean missile testing.

The US has also warned North Korea against selling weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

“I would not see this as a sign of some breakthrough. I think it’s a one-off,” Miller said of King’s release.

Source: Al Jazeera