WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. has secured the release of a U.S. soldier who sprinted across a heavily fortified border into North Korea more than two months ago, and he is on his way back to America, officials announced Wednesday. U.S. ally Sweden and rival China helped with the transfer.
Left unanswered were questions of why Pyongyang—which has tense relations with Washington over the North's nuclear program, support for Russia's war in Ukraine and other issues—had agreed to turn him over and why the soldier had fled in the first place.
North Korea had abruptly announced earlier Wednesday that it would expel Pvt. Travis King — though some had expected the North to drag out his detention in hopes of squeezing concessions from Washington at a time of high tensions between the two countries.
"U.S. officials have secured the return of Private Travis King from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “We appreciate the dedication of the interagency team that has worked tirelessly out of concern for Private King’s wellbeing."
Officials said they did not know exactly why North Korea decided to expel King, but suspected Pyongyang determined that as a low-ranking serviceman, he had no real value in terms of either leverage or information. One official, who was not authorized to comment and requested anonymity, said the North Koreans may have decided that King, 23, was more trouble to keep than to simply release him.
Swedish officials took King to the Chinese border, where he was met by the U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, the Swedish ambassador to China, and at least one U.S. Defense Department official. Biden administration officials insisted they provided no concessions to North Korea to secure the soldier's release.
“We thank the government of Sweden for its diplomatic role serving as the protecting power for the United States in the DPRK and the government of the People’s Republic of China for its assistance in facilitating the transit of Private King,” Sullivan added.
King was flown to a U.S. military base in South Korea before being returned to the U.S.
His expulsion almost certainly does not end his troubles or ensure the sort of celebratory homecoming that has accompanied the releases of other detained Americans. He has been declared AWOL from the Army, which can mean punishment military jail, forfeiture of pay or a dishonorable discharge.
In the near term, officials said that their focus would be on helping King reintegrate into U.S. society, including helping him address mental and emotional concerns, according to a senior Biden administration officials who briefed reporters on the transfer.
The soldier was in “good spirits and good health” upon his release, according to one senior administration official. He was to be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and was expected to arrive overnight, officials said.
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.
After arriving on the Texas military installation, King is expected to undergo psychological assessments and debriefings. He will also get a chance to meet with family. King’s legal situation remains complicated because he willingly bolted into enemy hands, so legally he would be in military custody throughout the process.