US soldier Travis King back in US custody after North Korea vowed to expel him

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 which 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, who were transporting him to a US-controlled facility.

Johnathan 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”.

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.

The state news agency did not specify how, when or where Mr King would be expelled.

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”.

He is the first known American to be held in North Korea in nearly five years.

On 18 July, Mr King, a private second class in the US Army was on a tour to the border between North and South Korea, when he separated from the group and fled across the border.

There, he surrendered himself to North Korean forces.

Prior to fleeing across the border, he had been detained for more than 40 days over an assault and destruction of private property conviction in South Korea.

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 on his flight and crossed into North Korea.

Mr King’s state of health is somewhat unclear.

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.