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Soldier Travis King expelled from North Korea, in US custody

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Washington: Private Travis King, the US soldier who ran into North Korea in July, is in US 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 positive resolution of the case was a rare example of cooperation between the United States, North Korea and China.

A TV screen shows a file image of American soldier Travis King during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul.Credit: AP

King, 23, made a sudden dash into North Korea from the South on July 18 while on a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area on the heavily fortified border between the neighbours and was immediately taken into North Korean custody.

The incident triggered heated discussions inside the US government, but Washington declined to declare him a prisoner of war. 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 had been expelled after admitting to entering North Korea illegally because he was “disillusioned about unequal US society”.

North Korea’s decision, published by KCNA, detailed the final results of an investigation into King’s border crossing. Last month, it reported interim findings that he wanted refuge in North Korea or elsewhere because of maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army.

“King confessed that he illegally intruded into the territory of the DPRK as he harboured ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army and was disillusioned about the unequal US society,” KCNA said.

DPRK refers to North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

US officials, citing US diplomatic representatives who saw King as he was departing China, told reporters he appeared to be in good health and spirits 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 US 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, standby ready for any further diplomacy (with North Korea) that might be possible.”

The Swedish government retrieved King in North Korea and brought him over the border into China, where he was taken into US custody, the US officials said, expressing their gratitude to both Sweden and China.

Sweden’s foreign ministry said it was “gratifying” King had been able to return to the US and that Sweden was able to help. Sweden has been the “protecting power” in North Korea for the United States, which has no diplomatic representation in the country.

China’s embassy in Washington did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Sydney Seiler at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who until July was the US national intelligence officer for North Korea, said Beijing had little incentive to use the transfer as leverage in already fraught US-China relations.

“There are many bigger irritants in the relationship. There’s no need to let what is at the end of the day basically a consular issue complicate things,” Seiler said.

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 US 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 had been transported by the US military to the airport to return 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 US guards to stop him.

One US official the military would consider what administrative actions King might face 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.

Reuters

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