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What we know about Travis King, the U.S. soldier who crossed into North Korea

Travis King, a U.S. soldier, is believed to be in North Korean custody after he ran across the border on Tuesday.
Reuters
Travis King, a U.S. soldier, is believed to be in North Korean custody after he ran across the border on Tuesday.

Updated July 19, 2023 at 2:16 PM ET

A U.S. soldier who crossed into North Korea on Tuesday did so "willfully and without authorization," according to U.S. and international officials. He's now believed to be in custody of North Korean armed forces.

The man, whom a U.S. Army spokesperson identified as Travis King, was a private second class who'd been released recently from a detention center in South Korea.

He was scheduled to be flown home to the U.S. when he somehow returned to South Korea, joined a tour group to the Demilitarized Zone and ran across the heavily fortified border into North Korea.

Here's an overview of what we know.

Who is Travis King?

Officials say Pvt. 2nd Class King has been a cavalry scout with the U.S. Army since January 2021.

The 23-year-old had been stationed in South Korea, but had recently served two months in a prison there on charges of assault, the Associated Press reported.

Several South Korean media outlets report that King had punched a South Korean national in a club last September. He had also been fined 5 million won ($3,942) for causing public damage and being uncooperative with police during his arrest.

According to an account from the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, citing legal sources, King yelled obscenities at South Korean police as he kicked the doors and interior of a police vehicle.

CBS News reports that King was released to U.S. officials at the military hub in the country about a week ago.

Barricades are placed near the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, Wednesday, July 19, 2023. An American soldier who had served nearly two months in a South Korean prison, fled across the heavily armed border into North Korea, U.S. officials said Tuesday, becoming the first American detained in the North in nearly five years.
Ahn Young-joon / AP
/
AP
Barricades are seen Wednesday near the Unification Bridge, which leads to Panmunjom, the DMZ village where King crossed the border on Tuesday.

Before bolting into North Korea, King was being escorted to an airport outside of Seoul where he was expected to board a plane bound for Fort Bliss, Texas, to face military disciplinary action.

Officials escorted him through airport security, but King somehow managed to ditch the escort and make his way out of the terminal and back to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

That is where officials said King, who was dressed in civilian clothes, joined a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom.

What happened when King crossed the border?

One member of the tour group described the incident on a now-deleted Facebook post, saying the King laughed loudly, then ran between two buildings and eventually into North Korea.

Another told the AP that King was one of 43 tourists in the group and appeared to be traveling alone, dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt.

He made his move at the end of the tour, disappearing down a narrow passageway between the DMZ's famous blue buildings before the soldiers standing guard on the South Korean side had time to respond, said the woman, Sarah Leslie.

Leslie said she didn't see any guards on the North Korean side and was told by her tour guides that the army there had decreased its presence at the DMZ since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's still unclear whether King planned his escape into North Korea or whether it was something he did on a whim. Some experts say that the trip just to the Demilitarized Zone takes days of planning.

Leslie said she had been required to submit her passport in order to receive a permit in advance of the tour.

Where is King now?

During a Tuesday press conference, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said officials believe King is in the custody of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"I'm absolutely foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop," Austin said.

So far, there has been no official word from North Korea.

King's mother, Claudine Gates who lives in Racine, Wis., told ABC News that she was shocked when Army officials told her on Tuesday that her son had fled.

"I can't see Travis doing anything like that," Gates said.

She added that the last time she heard from her son was a few days ago when he called to tell her he was headed back to his base in Fort Bliss, according to the outlet.

"I'm so proud of him. I just want him to come home, come back to America," Gates said.

Can U.S. officials bring King home?

The soldier's detention poses a fresh diplomatic challenge for Washington's wary relationship with North Korea; the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

NPR's Greg Myre said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may endeavor to leverage the incident for political gain.

"It certainly wouldn't be surprising if North Korea tries to score some propaganda points or makes demands in exchange for handing over the soldier," Myre told All Things Considered.

Many U.S. citizens have been detained by North Korea over the years.

The last time was in 2018 when Bruce Byron Lowrance​ illegally entered the country from China. Lowrance was held in custody for a month before his release.

Before that, Tony Kim, a Korean-American professor, and Kim Hack Song, a former South Korean politician who also held U.S. citizenship, were both detained in 2017 and then released over a year later.

Their release came on the same day as another American Kim Dong Chul, who had been held since 2015. The three were set free during a visit North Korea by then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and ahead of the much anticipated summit between then-President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore later that year.

One of the more high-profile detainments was that of Otto Warmbier in 2016, a U.S. college student who was on a tour of the country before he was detained.

Warmbier was accused of taking a poster from his hotel and held for more than a year. He was eventually released to U.S. officials while he was in a coma and then died just days after returning to the U.S.

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed reporting from Seoul.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.
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