American soldier who bolted into North Korea 2 months ago has returned to the U.S.
A portrait of American soldier Travis King is displayed as his grandfather, Carl Gates, talks about his grandson on July 19, 2023, in Kenosha, Wis. North Korea says on Wednesday, Sept. 27, it has decided to expel a U.S. soldier who crossed into the country through the heavily armed inter-Korean border in July. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)
Matthew Lee, Kim Tong-hyung And Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press
Published Thursday, September 28, 2023 5:45AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, September 28, 2023 2:58PM EDT
SAN ANTONIO (AP) - The American soldier who sprinted into North Korea across the heavily fortified border between the Koreas more than two months ago was whisked to a Texas Army base Thursday for medical checks and interviews after his return to the U.S., according to the Pentagon.
North Korea abruptly announced a day earlier that it would expel Pvt. Travis King. His return was organized with the help of ally Sweden and rival China, according to the White House.
While officials have said King, 23, is in good health and the immediate focus will be on caring for him and reintegrating him into U.S. society, his troubles are likely far from over.
King, who had served in South Korea, ran into the North while on a civilian tour of a border village on July 18, becoming the first American confirmed to be detained in the isolated country in nearly five years. At the time, he was supposed to be heading to Fort Bliss, Texas, following his release from prison in South Korea on an assault conviction.
He was declared AWOL from the Army, but not considered a deserter. Punishment for going AWOL can vary, and it depends in part on whether the service member voluntarily returned or was apprehended. King's two-month absence and ultimate handover by the North Koreans makes that more complicated.
King arrived in the early hours of Thursday at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center, according to the Pentagon. He will undergo an array of medical and psychological assessments and debriefings, and he will also get a chance to meet with family.
Video aired by a Texas news station showed King walking off a plane. Dressed in a dark top and pants, he could be seen speaking briefly with people waiting on the tarmac. He shook hands with one before being led into a building.
Many questions remain about King's case, including why he fled in the first place and why the North - which has tense relations with Washington over Pyongyang's nuclear program, support for Russia's war in Ukraine and other issues - agreed to turn him over.
The White House has not addressed North Korean state media reports that King fled because of his dismay about racial discrimination and inequality in the military and U.S. society.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency reported that King made such complaints but verifying that is impossible.
On Wednesday, Swedish officials took King to the Chinese border, where he was met by U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, the Swedish ambassador to China, and at least one U.S. Defense Department official.
He was then flown to a U.S. military base in South Korea before heading to the U.S.
His detention was relatively short by North Korean standards.
Several recent American detainees had been held for over a year - 17 months in the case of Otto Warmbier, a college student who was arrested during a group tour. Warmbier was in a coma when he was deported, and later died.
North Korea has often been accused of using American detainees as bargaining chips, and there had also been speculation that the North would try to maximize the propaganda value of a U.S. soldier.
But analysts say King's legal troubles could have limited his propaganda value, and Biden administration officials insisted they provided no concessions to North Korea to secure his release.
Lee and Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kim Tong-Hyung contributed from Seoul, South Korea.