US soldier Travis King heads home after North Korea expels him
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FILE PHOTO: U.S. Private Travis T. King (wearing a black shirt and black cap) is seen in this picture taken during a tour of the tightly controlled Joint Security Area (JSA) on the border between the two Koreas, at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Ko
By Phil Stewart, Trevor Hunnicutt and Hyonhee Shin
WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - Private Travis King, the U.S. soldier who ran into North Korea in July, is in U.S. custody and heading home after being expelled by North Korea into China, the United States said on Wednesday.
While details about the diplomacy that led to King's transfer remained scarce, the development was a rare example of cooperation between the United States, North Korea and China. The State Department said King was expected to return to the United States later on Wednesday.
King, 23, made a sudden dash into North Korea from the South on July 18 while on a civilian tour of their heavily fortified border and was immediately taken into North Korean custody.
Washington declined to declare him a prisoner of war despite heated debate within the government. For its part, North Korea appears to have treated his case as one of illegal immigration.
North Korea's KCNA state news agency said King told Pyongyang he entered North Korea illegally because he was disillusioned about unequal U.S. society."
North Korea's decision to expel King, published by KCNA, detailed the final results of an investigation into his border crossing. Last month, it said that he wanted refuge in North Korea or elsewhere because of maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. army.
KING IN 'GOOD HEALTH'
The Swedish government, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea because Washington has no diplomatic presence in the country, retrieved King in North Korea and brought him to China.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters that King was met by the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Nicholas Burns, in Dandong, China, a river city bordering North Korea. Miller said King flew from there to Shenyang, China, then to Osan Air Force Base in South Korea.
Expressing gratitude to Sweden and China, U.S. officials, citing U.S. diplomatic representatives who saw King, told reporters he appeared in good health and was “very happy” to be on his way home. He was able to speak with his family after his release from North Korea.
His release followed months of intense diplomacy, the U.S. officials said, adding that no concessions were made to the North in exchange for King.
"This incident, to our minds, demonstrates that keeping lines of communication open even when ties are strained is a really important thing to do and can deliver results," one senior administration official said.
"We, again, stand by ready for any further diplomacy (with North Korea) that might be possible."
Miller said he did not view King's return as a sign of a wider breakthrough with North Korea and that China had not served as a mediator in the matter, but rather as a transit point for the soldier.
China's embassy in Washington did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
South Korea's foreign ministry welcomed King's release from North Korea and said it had been briefed by Washington on developments, without elaborating.
DISCIPLINE FOR KING POSSIBLE
Jonathan Franks, 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."
King's uncle, Myron Gates, told ABC News in August that his nephew, who is Black, experienced racism during his military deployment, and that after he spent time in a South Korean jail, he did not sound like himself.
King, who joined the U.S. army in January 2021, faced two allegations of assault in South Korea. He pleaded guilty to one instance of assault and destroying public property for damaging a police car during a profanity-laced tirade against Koreans, according to court documents. He had been due to face more disciplinary measures when he arrived back in the United States.
King had finished serving military detention and was at the airport awaiting U.S. military transport to his home unit in the United States. Instead, he left the airport and joined a tour of the border area, where he ran across despite attempts by South Korean and U.S. guards to stop him.
One U.S. official said the military would consider administrative actions against King after he was evaluated, taken through a reintegration process and reunited with his family in the United States. The official declined to answer directly whether King would face a court martial.
A different U.S. official said King was heading to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, which is located at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. It is the same base that treated basketball star Brittney Griner in December last year after a prisoner swap with Russia ended her 10 months in Russian detention.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul and Phil Stewart, Susan Heavey, Trevor Hunnicutt, Doina Chiacu, Idrees Ali, Daphne Psaledakis Michael Martina, Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom in Washington, Brendan O'Brien in Chicago, and Johan Ahlander in Stockholm; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Sharon Singleton, Bill Berkrot, Don Durfee, Daniel Wallis, William Maclean and Cynthia Osterman)
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