The American soldier who sprinted into North Korea across the heavily fortified border between the Koreas two months ago arrived back in the US early Thursday, video appeared to show.
Private Travis King’s release was secured with the help of ally Sweden and rival China, the White House said Wednesday. North Korea abruptly announced earlier that day that it would expel the soldier.
While officials have said King, 23, is in good health and the immediate focus will be on caring for him and reintegrating him into US 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 nation 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 has been declared AWOL from the Army. In many cases, someone who is AWOL for more than a month can automatically be considered a deserter.
Punishment for going AWOL or desertion can vary, and it depends in part on whether the service member voluntarily returned or was apprehended. King’s handover by the North Koreans makes that more complicated.
Video aired Thursday by a Texas news station appeared to show King walking off a plane in San Antonio. 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.
On Wednesday, Swedish officials took King to the Chinese border, where he was met by US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, the Swedish ambassador to China, and at least one US Defense Department official.
He was then flown to a US military base in South Korea before being returned to the US.
It was not clear why the North – which has tense relations with Washington over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and other issues – agreed to turn him over or why the soldier fled in the first place.
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 maximise the propaganda value of an active duty US 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.