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Travis King, soldier from Racine, returned to US custody after crossing into North Korea

The U.S. soldier, Travis King, who sprinted into North Korea across the heavily fortified border between the Koreas two months ago was released into American custody Wednesday.
South Korea North Korea US
Posted at 6:14 AM, Sep 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-28 20:00:45-04

SEOUL, South Korea (AP/TMJ4/CNN) — The U.S. soldier who sprinted into North Korea across the heavily fortified border between the Koreas two months ago was released into American custody Wednesday, according to two officials.

Latest info on the release of Travis King, return to US

According to CNN on Wednesday, Jonathan Franks, spokesperson for Ms. Claudine Gates, Private King’s mother, said the following:

“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.”

According to CNN, Pvt. Travis King was brought by a Swedish convoy to the Friendship bridge on the border between North Korea and Dandong, China, according to two US officials. Sweden has acted as the interlocutor between the US and North Korea, senior administration officials said earlier.

On the Chinese side of the bridge, the US Defense Attaché from the US embassy to China met King and took him into US military custody. He was then taken to an airport in China, where he subsequently flew to Osan Air Base in South Korea, the US officials added.

King is expected to fly back to the United States on a US military flight overnight (local time) and is expected to arrive in San Antonio in the early hours of Thursday, the officials said.

He will be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center for medical evaluation and care. The hospital has a Defense Department program known as Post-Isolation Support Activities (PISA) to help acclimate back to normal life after being detained. Both Trevor Reed and Brittany Griner were taken there after they were released from Russia.

TMJ4 visits family home in Racine

Outside King's family home in Racine on Wednesday, a man with King's mother told TMJ4 News after we asked how they were feeling, “all I can say right now is that we’re happy, that’s all I can say.”

Background on the Travis King fleeing to North Korea

According to the Associated Press, earlier, North Korea said it would expel Pvt. Travis King — an announcement that surprised some observers who had expected the North to drag out his detention in the hopes of squeezing concessions from Washington at a time of high tensions between the rivals.

King’s expulsion almost certainly does not end his troubles or ensure the sort of celebratory homecoming that has accompanied the releases of other detained Americans.

And there remain unanswered questions about the episode, including why King went to North Korea in the first place. His fate also remains uncertain, having been declared AWOL by the U.S. government. That can mean punishment by time in military jail, forfeiture of pay or a dishonorable discharge.

King was transferred to American custody in China, according to one of the officials. The two U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss King’s status ahead of an announcement.

It was not clear what condition he was in. He is being taken to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, according to another U.S. official. He is expected to arrive overnight. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military movements.

King, who had served in South Korea, ran into North Korea while on a civilian tour of a border village on July 18, becoming the first American confirmed to be detained in the North in nearly five years.

At the time he crossed the border, King was supposed to be heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, following his release from prison in South Korea on an assault conviction.

On Wednesday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that authorities had finished their questioning of King. It said that he confessed to illegally entering the North because he harbored “ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination” within the U.S. Army and was “disillusioned about the unequal U.S. society.”

It has attributed similar comments to King before, and verifying their authenticity is impossible. Some previous foreign detainees have said after their releases that their declarations of guilt while in North Korean custody were made under coercion.

In an interview last month with The Associated Press, King’s mother, Claudine Gates, said her son had reason to want to come home. She thanked the U.S. government on Wednesday for securing her son's release.

“Ms. Gates will be forever grateful to the United States Army and all its interagency partners for a job well done," Jonathan Franks, spokesperson for Gates, said in a statement. "For the foreseeable future, the family asks for privacy and Ms. Gates does not intend to give any interviews.”

King, who is from Wisconsin, was among about 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea. U.S. officials had expressed concern about King’s well-being, citing the North’s harsh treatment of some American detainees in the past.

Both Koreas ban anyone from crossing their heavily fortified shared border without special permissions. The Americans who crossed into North Korea in the past include soldiers, missionaries, human rights advocates or those simply curious about one of the world’s most cloistered societies.

North Korea’s decision to release King after 71 days appears relatively quick by the country’s standards, especially considering the tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over the North’s growing nuclear weapons and missile program and the United States' expanding military exercises with South Korea. Some had speculated that North Korea might treat King as a propaganda asset or bargaining chip.

In the end, the North apparently concluded that King simply wasn’t worth keeping, possibly because of the cost of providing him food and accommodation and assigning him guards and translators when he was never to be a meaningful source of U.S. military intelligence, said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

Captive Americans have been flown to China previously. In other cases, an envoy has been sent to retrieve them.

That happened in 2017 when North Korea deported Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was in a coma at the time of his release and later died.

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