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US Army Private Travis King has been returned to American custody, two US officials said Wednesday, weeks after he crossed into North Korea.
The news came after North Korean state media KCNA reported earlier Wednesday that the secretive state had decided “to expel” King, who entered its territory during a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea in July.
The KCNA report said a North Korean investigation into King “has been finished.”
King crossed the military demarcation line from South Korea into the North during a tour of the Joint Security Area inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in July. US military officials have said that King crossed the border “willfully and without authorization.”
King, a junior enlisted soldier assigned to US Forces Korea, had faced assault charges in South Korea and was due to return to Fort Bliss, Texas, and be removed from the military just one day before he crossed into North Korea, CNN previously reported.
North Korea claimed on Wednesday that King has “confessed that he illegally intruded into the territory of the DPRK as he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. army and was disillusioned about the unequal U.S. society.”
CNN cannot verify whether these are King’s own words.
There is no physical barrier inside the JSA, and a US official had previously said that after bolting over the demarcation line delineating the border, King tried to enter a North Korean facility – but the door was locked. He then ran to the back of the building, at which point he was hurried into a van and driven away by North Korean guards.
King, a cavalry scout who joined the military in January 2021, was released from a detention facility in South Korea just over a week before the incident, where he had served 50 days doing labor, defense officials told CNN.
The day before he crossed into North Korea, King was supposed to board a flight to Texas, where he was to face disciplinary procedures. But after Army escorts released him at a security checkpoint at Incheon International Airport near Seoul, King left the airport on his own.
The next day, he joined a tour of the JSA he had previously booked with a private company.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last month that it “would not be out of character” for North Korea to use the US soldier as a propaganda tool or bargaining chip.
“They certainly could. … We haven’t seen any indication that that’s exactly what’s afoot here, but certainly would not be out of character for them,” Kirby told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.” “What we’re focused on is trying to make sure we can get information about him.”
Kirby added at that time that King’s location was unclear, as well as “the conditions he’s being held” and information about his health.