US soldier Travis King crossed over the border from South to North Korea in an alleged attempt to defect from the army after his experiences of “inhumane treatment” and “racism” while in service.
The 2nd ClassPrivate had passed through airport security as he was being sent home from South Korea for disciplinary reasons. He still somehow managed to leave the airport and join a civilian tour of the demilitarized zone near the North Korean border.
As he left the tour group behind, he reportedly let out a loud laugh as he ran away and surrendered to North Korean forces.
No one heard or saw the soldier for months. The United Nations Command reached out to the country for information, but they simply “acknowledged” their request.
Officials sat tight until they gained information from a North Korean TV network, KCNA, who said they had finished up investigating Mr King’s “illegal crossing”.
Silence fell once again on Mr King’s status, until 27 September, when it was announced that the solider was now back in US custody.
Here is everything we know about Travis King and his venture into one of the world’s most secretive authoritarian states:
King’s assault trouble in South Korea
Mr King had been serving as a reconnaissance specialist since 2021. He was in South Korea as part of his rotation.
On 24 May, he was sentenced to serve in a labour camp for more than 40 days at the Cheonan correctional facility, which was used to house members of the US military and other foreigners who had committed crimes in South Korea.
He was held on assault charges, which earned him military disciplinary actions back in the US.
When Mr King was released on 10 July, officials booked him on a flight back home to Fort Bliss in Texas to face punishment for his actions while abroad.
Yet Mr King’s time out of the US was not going to end there, as despite making his way through airport security, he absconded his flight and escaped the US military police out of Incheon Airport.
Bryce Dubee, an Army spokesperson shared the following information about Mr King: “PV2 Travis T. King is a 19D (Cavalry Scout) in the Regular Army from January 2021 to present. He has no deployments. During his Korean Force Rotation he was originally assigned to 6th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division and is currently administratively attached to 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. His awards include the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Defense Service Medal and Overseas Service Ribbon.”
King crossed the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
He had joined a group taking a tour of the Joint Security Area – the border village in the DMZ separating the two Koreas, which is heavily guarded by soldiers from both sides.
The UN Command in a statement said: “A US National on a JSA (Joint Security Area) orientation tour crossed, without authorisation, the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).”
Authorities said that “we are working with KPA (North Korean army) counterparts to resolve this incident”.
According to the local press, a foreign national crossed the border at 1527 local time [0627 GMT].
Colonel Isaac Taylor of United States Forces Korea Public Affairs told The Independent at the time: “A U.S. Service member on a JSA orientation tour willfully and without authorization crossed the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). We believe he is currently in DPRK custody and are working with our KPA counterparts to resolve this incident.”
‘This man gives out a loud ‘ha ha ha,’ and just runs in between some buildings’
An individual who said they witnessed what took place and was taking part in the tour along with the US soldier told CBS News that they had visited one of the buildings in the area when “this man gives out a loud ‘ha ha ha,’ and just runs in between some buildings”.
“I thought it was a bad joke at first, but when he didn’t come back, I realised it wasn’t a joke, and then everybody reacted and things got crazy,” they told the outlet.
The DMZ, one of the most fortified places in the world, is filled with landmines, surrounded by electric and barbed wire fencing and surveillance cameras.
The witness told the network that no North Korean soldiers could be seen where the man ran, adding that they had been told that there hadn’t been any present since the pandemic as North Korea attempted to fully close its borders.
The witness said that after the man had crossed the border, the tour group was taken to Freedom House to give statements and then to be taken to their bus.
‘Inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army’
The rogue US soldier had gone missing into the depths of the authoritarian state. No one had heard from or seen Mr King for around a month.
The United Nations Command tried to gain information from North Korea and were “acknowledged” but given very little detail.
That was until his photo was broadcast on a North Korean TV network, as state news agency KCNA revealed that he was in the custody of soldiers of the Korean People’s Army.
They said that Korean officials were leading an investigation into Mr King’s crossing into their country.
“During the investigation, Travis King confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK as he harboured ill feelings against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army,” state-run news agency KCNA said last month.
DPRK reveals Mr King’s attempts to refuge in their country
On 27 September, the state-run news outlet KCNA announced that they would be expelling Mr King after his “illegal” entry into the country.
Pyongyang claimed they had finished an investigation into why Mr King had entered their country without permission.
They said that their findings had revealed that he was trying to seek refuge in the country “due to inhuman treatment in the US military, antipathy to racism and disillusionment with the unequal US society”.
King turned over to US Custody
Shortly after the KCNA announcement, US officials said that the deviated soldier is now back in American custody after being turned over to US authorities in China, an anonymous US official said.
He is the first known American to be held in North Korea in nearly five years.
While there are very few cases of Americans or South Koreans defecting to the North, more than 30,000 North Koreans are believed to have crossed the border to the South since the 1950s.
Washington has banned American nationals from entering North Korea “due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of US nationals”.
“The US government is unable to provide emergency services to US citizens in North Korea as it does not have diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea,” the US travel advisory for North Korea reads.
The ban was implemented after American college student Otto Warmbier was detained by the North while on a tour of the country in 2015. He died in 2017, days after he was released from prison and returned to the US in a coma.
Family give differing opinions on what happened to King
After news that Mr King would be deported from North Korea, Johnathan Franks, a spokesperson for Mr King’s mother, Claudine Gates, said she “will be forever grateful to the United States Army and all its interagency partners for a job well done”.
He added that the soldier’s family was asking for privacy, and said Ms Gates “does not intend to give any interviews”.
However, before the soldier was found, other family members shared their opinions on why Mr King would have defected to North Korea.
Myron Gates, Mr King’s Uncle, said that his nephew had been experiencing racism during his time in the US military and after he spent time in a South Korean jail, he no longer sounded like himself, reports ABC.
He also revealed to The Daily Beast that Mr King was already “breaking down” after he learned that his six-year-old cousin, Mr Gates’ son, had died from a rare genetic condition, SPTLC 2.
“When my son was on life support, and when my son passed away … Travis started [being] reckless [and] crazy when he knew my son was about to die,” he said.
However, Jaqueda Gates, Mr King’s sister, said that his rash escape into North Korea just did not sound like something he would do.
“My brother, he’s not the type to get into trouble like that. It all just sounds made up,” Ms Gates told NBC News after explaining she had only spoken to him on the phone two days before.
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