US Army Private Travis King has been returned to American custody, two US officials said Wednesday, weeks after he crossed into North Korea.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed that the US has “secured the return of Private Travis King” in a statement on Wednesday morning.
“We appreciate the dedication of the interagency team that has worked tirelessly out of concern for Private King’s wellbeing. In addition, we thank the government of Sweden for its diplomatic role serving as the protecting power for the United States in the DPRK and the government of the People’s Republic of China for its assistance in facilitating the transit of Private King,” Sullivan said in the statement.
Earlier North Korean state media KCNA reported that the secretive state had decided “to expel” King, who entered its territory during a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea in July.
The KCNA report said a North Korean investigation into King “has been finished.”
US officials said King was released after “intense diplomacy” between multiple countries culminating in Wednesday’s transfer across the border into China and onward to US custody.
“The US government has successfully facilitated Private Travis King’s departure from the DPRK. His transfer culminates a monthslong effort involving multiple US government agencies undertaken out of concern for Private King’s well-being and a desire to reunite him with his family,” a senior administration official said.
The Pentagon released a statement thanking the Chinese and Swedish governments for their assistance in securing King’s release.
“U.S. officials have secured the return of Private Travis King from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). We appreciate the hard work of personnel in the Army, United States Forces Korea, and across the Department of Defense to bring Private King home, and we thank the governments of Sweden and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for their assistance,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. General Pat Ryder said in the statement.
Swedish embassy spokesman David Lunderquist confirmed that Sweden played a role in getting King released.
Sweden and China’s involvement
China’s role was limited to helping facilitate King’s transfer out of North Korea, but otherwise Bejing did not play a “mediating role,” a US official said.
The US received word earlier this month from Sweden, which acts as the US protecting power in North Korea, that Pyongyang wanted to release King.’
A spokesperson for King’s mother, Claudine Gates said she will be “forever grateful” for the efforts to free her son.
“Ms. Gates will be forever grateful to the United States Army and all its interagency partners for a job well done. For the foreseeable future, the family asks for privacy, and Ms. Gates does not intend to give any interviews,” the statement from Jonathan Franks said.
King, the senior administration official said, is in “good health and good spirits as he makes his way home.” Pressed by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond on whether King wanted to return to the US, the official said, it became “quite clear” to US diplomats that “Private King was very happy to be on his way home.”
Asked whether the US made any concessions to North Korea for the transfer, officials emphatically said no.
“The answer is simple: There were none. Full stop,” the senior official said.
President Joe Biden and other top administration leadership have been “closely briefed and following events as they unfold,” the official added.
US military officials have said that King “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea in July. King had been released from a detention facility in South Korea just over a week before running across the demarcation line – punishment which appeared to stem from an October 2022 incident in which he allegedly pushed and punched a victim in the face at a club in Seoul, according to court documents.
Asked if King could be facing a court martial, or charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, an official emphasized that the focus for the next several weeks would be on King’s health as he gets back “on solid footing.”
“We’ll address any administrative actions that may follow after the reintegration process,” the official said.
The official added that the focus within the military is having a “very talented and experienced team” evaluate King and address “any medical and emotional concerns.” Asked about his absent without leave, or AWOL, status, the official said they would work through “all those administrative status questions following the completion of his reintegration.”
The officials facilitated a phone call between King and his family, an official said.
“He is very much looking forward to being reunited with his family. That is the sentiment that is pervading all else right now,” an official said.
Asked whether Biden had spoken with Private King or his family, senior administration officials demurred, pointing instead to the call they facilitated between King and his family.
North Korea claimed on Wednesday that King has “confessed that he illegally intruded into the territory of the DPRK as he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. army and was disillusioned about the unequal U.S. society.”
CNN cannot verify whether these are King’s own words.
There is no physical barrier inside the JSA, and a US official had previously said that after bolting over the demarcation line delineating the border, King tried to enter a North Korean facility – but the door was locked. He then ran to the back of the building, at which point he was hurried into a van and driven away by North Korean guards.
King, a cavalry scout who joined the military in January 2021, was released from a detention facility in South Korea just over a week before the incident, where he had served 50 days doing labor, defense officials told CNN.
The day before he crossed into North Korea, King was supposed to board a flight to Texas, where he was to face disciplinary procedures. But after Army escorts released him at a security checkpoint at Incheon International Airport near Seoul, King left the airport on his own.
The next day, he joined a tour of the JSA he had previously booked with a private company.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last month that it “would not be out of character” for North Korea to use the US soldier as a propaganda tool or bargaining chip.
“They certainly could. … We haven’t seen any indication that that’s exactly what’s afoot here, but certainly would not be out of character for them,” Kirby told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.” “What we’re focused on is trying to make sure we can get information about him.”
Kirby added at that time that King’s location was unclear, as well as “the conditions he’s being held” and information about his health.