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Travis King, U.S. soldier who ran to North Korea, is on his way to Texas

A TV screen shows a file image of U.S. soldier Travis King during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday. North Korea said Wednesday that it was expelling King, who crossed into the country through the heavily armed border between the Koreas in July.
Ahn Young-joon
/
AP
A TV screen shows a file image of U.S. soldier Travis King during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday. North Korea said Wednesday that it was expelling King, who crossed into the country through the heavily armed border between the Koreas in July.

Updated September 27, 2023 at 2:57 PM ET

Travis King, a 23-year-old American soldier who ran across the border into North Korea in July, was transferred to U.S. custody and on his way back to the United States on Wednesday, U.S. officials say.

North Korea's state news agency had said earlier Wednesday the country would expel King, claiming he had "confessed that he illegally intruded" into the country, but didn't say when or where he would be sent.

U.S. officials said King was transferred to China where he was handed over to the United States. A Defense Department official told NPR Wednesday afternoon King was on his way to a military hospital in San Antonio, Texas.

"Pvt. King appears to be in good health and good spirits as he makes his way home," said a senior Biden administration official, who asked not to be named when briefing reporters on details before the transfer was made public.

U.S. officials spent weeks negotiating King's release. Since North Korea and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, Washington used other channels, including Swedish diplomats.

Statements from White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the Pentagon thanked both Sweden and China for helping facilitate King's transfer to U.S. custody.

Officials also sought to dispel any suspicion about what Washington may have given up for King.

"We did not give them anything. We made no concessions as a part of securing his return," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

He said the U.S. would welcome diplomacy with North Korea but Pyongyang always rebuffs its efforts.

"When Travis King first crossed the border into North Korea, we tried to reach out a number of occasions. They rejected our direct approaches and ended up talking to Sweden and Sweden talked to us and helped negotiate this transfer," Miller said. "But I would not see this as the sign of some breakthrough. I think it's a one-off with them being willing to return this [Army] private."

Miller said King was transported to the border of North Korea and China, where he met U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns. He then flew from Dandong, China, "He then boarded a State Department plane and flew from Dandong to Shenyang, China, and then on to Osan Air Base in South Korea, where he was transferred to the Defense Department, Miller said.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said earlier that King, who is African American, was "disillusioned about the unequal U.S. society," echoing earlier reports that King was open to seeking refuge in North Korea or a third country.

King's uncle told ABC News in August that his nephew had experienced racism in the Army. King joined the Army in 2021 and was stationed in South Korea.

King recently served in prison in South Korea for an assault and was due to return to a military base at Fort Bliss, Texas, facing possible disciplinary action.

But King skipped his flight and joined a civilian tour of the Joint Security Area at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. He then bolted across the border, where he was quickly detained by North Korean authorities.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that before they decide on next steps on his case, he will be given medical and psychological attention and will be reunited with his family. He's already been able to speak with them.

Anthony Kuhn reported in Seoul, South Korea; Michele Kelemen reported in Washington, D.C., where Tom Bowman also contributed reporting.

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

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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