US Army Private Travis King arrived back on United States soil Thursday after being returned to American custody weeks after he crossed into North Korea, a Defense Department official said.
King flew in on a US military flight, landing at Kelly Field at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston around 1:30 a.m. ET, the official said.
A CNN camera captured what appears to be King being escorted off the plane by several people. They met officials waiting on the ground and led King off to another area of the military base, out of sight of the camera.
While many questions still remain, such as what prompted King to enter North Korea and whether he will face any disciplinary action, his return marks a rare diplomatic success between Washington and Pyongyang at a time of fraught relations.
It also caps a frenetic period of negotiations to secure King’s release, with weeks of what US officials called “intense diplomacy” between multiple countries including China, which facilitated King’s transfer across the border on Wednesday, and Sweden, which acts as the US protecting power in North Korea.
North Korean state media KCNA had reported Wednesday that Pyongyang had decided “to expel” King, who entered their territory in July during a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the heart of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
Two US officials told CNN Wednesday that King is expected to be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio upon his return, which has a dedicated program to help Americans acclimate back to normal life after being detained.
The border crossing
US military officials have said that King, a junior enlisted cavalry scout, “willfully and without authorization” crossed into North Korea in July.
King had been released from a detention facility in South Korea just over a week before running across the demarcation line – punishment which appeared to stem from an October 2022 incident in which he allegedly pushed and punched a victim in the face at a club in Seoul, according to court documents.
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.
There is no physical barrier inside the JSA, and a US official 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.
Pyongyang claimed Wednesday that King had “confessed that he illegally intruded into the territory of the DPRK (North Korea) as he harboured ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US army and was disillusioned about the unequal US society.”
The North Koreans on Wednesday handed King off to the US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns in Dandong, China.
A Swedish convoy took King to the Friendship bridge on the border between North Korea and China, two US officials told CNN on Wednesday. On the Chinese side of the bridge, the US Defense Attache to China Brigadier General Patrick Teague and Burns met King and took him into US military custody.
State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said that King then flew to Shenyang, China, and then to Osan Air Force Base in South Korea before departing for the US.
The US received word earlier this month from Sweden that Pyongyang wanted to release King.
And according to a US official, China’s role was limited to helping facilitate King’s transfer out of North Korea, but otherwise Bejing did not play a “mediating role.”
China’s foreign ministry briefly touched on King’s transfer at a regular briefing.
“At the request of North Korea and the US, China provided necessary assistance from a humanitarian point of view,” spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters.
US officials have emphatically said the US did not make any concessions to North Korea for the transfer.-CNN